In his review of The Revenant, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman keenly pointed out the prismatic depth of the year’s fifth best film: “The Revenant is a Western, it’s a survival tale, it’s a drama, it’s a historical epic, it’s an existential portrait. It could even be argued as a black comedy.” The bleakly beautiful, haunting film may slice cold like a blade of white light, but when it hits you, you can pick out the myriad and diverse themes and motifs. This quality runs intrinsically through the film’s soundtrack, as well, the team of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner combining for a chilling, powerful listening experience.
The Revenant succeeds in part because director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki embraced the harsh physical reality of their film, and as such, the viewer experiences the world along with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass. According to Iñárritu, the cast and crew would spend nearly half of each shoot day just traversing mountains and forests to get to locations. The rough, snowy landscapes of northern Canada and the extreme southern tip of Argentina meant daylight was scarce — and yet they struggled through the cold to shoot only using natural light. “If we ended up in green screen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit,” Iñárritu explained. Sakamoto, Noto, and Dessner may not have been trekking through the taiga, but they reinforce the chilled winds adroitly.
(Read: Film Review: The Revenant)
The 23-track score is a patient listen, a droning, ambient experience short on cathartic moments, instead building an awestruck sense of both terror and beauty. The buried orchestral chords, bass rumble, and thousands of pizzicato needle-pricks on “Killing Hawk” recall something from a David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti score. Here, and throughout, the brutality of the on-screen moment is buttressed by icy ethereality rather than competing for attention.
The more surreal moments play particularly well in the score for that reason. When so much of the film relies on staring reality in the eye, the twists and turns of dreams and visions can be shocking; the soundtrack relies so heavily on the long-gestating musical ohms of Brian Eno or even Phillip Glass that the unexpected left turns manage the flow. On “First Dream”, long-tone strings are punctuated by echoing plinks and ponderous thuds. The latter are particularly unsettling, as if shaking you awake from the rime-covered meditation the score lulls you into. “Church Dream”, on the other hand, slips away into a wind corridor of gray blankness just when the soaring strings start to resemble a comfortable progression.
(Read: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Top 10 Performances)
Much of the soundtrack feels like papery skin drawn increasingly tight across sharp bones. There’s a tension lying under the surface of stretched notes, threatening constantly to break. The watery “Imagining Buffalo” slips in and out of harmony and disharmony much like the film itself, at times verging on utter chaos and at others suggesting the amazing balance only nature is capable of. The crushing weight of the bass on “Looking for Glass” coexists with ascendant violins, demonstrating that duality just as well. This endless push-pull of extreme difference plays much like Mica Levi’s Under the Skin score, Elliott Goldenthal’s music for Heat, or even Steven Price’s score to Gravity.
The Revenant is a tiring score because it traces Glass’ desperate clinging to life, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Without spoiling the film’s finale, the “Final Fight” fittingly pushes all the conflicts and contradictions together: electronic and acoustic elements, airy calm and violent spatters of drum, beauty and terror, chaotic random and tightly orchestrated strings. There’s a brief moment when resolution and triumph seem within reach. But “The End” that follows should tip you off as to what to expect: more rise-and-fall repetitions, fading into the back of your mind without offering any sort of neatly tied hope or salvation. Nature doesn’t resolve, and neither do these composers.
Essential Tracks: “Killing Hawk”, “First Dream”, and “Imagining Buffalo”