A Different Kind of Revenant
When Alejandro González Iñárritu enlisted jazz percussionist Antonio Sánchez to compose and perform the bulk of the score for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), he put his future collaborators in a tough spot. While Sánchez’s revelatory, drums-only soundtrack was not nominated for an Academy Award due to the same technicalities that made Jonny Greenwood’s gloriously creepy There Will Be Blood score ineligible, it was still an idiosyncratic and very well-received piece as a whole, and as such, it set the bar for scoring Iñárritu films post-Birdman pretty damn high.
Luckily, the hefty onus of exceeding impossible expectations fell on seasoned pro Ryuichi Sakamoto this time around. With a little help from longtime collaborator Alva Noto and The National’s Bryce Dessner, Sakamoto, making his grand return to work following treatment for oropharyngeal cancer, has managed to create a sonic landscape for The Revenant that is just as kinetic, just as riveting, just as in-its-own-class as that of Birdman without taking a single page out of Sánchez’s book. Well… maybe a single page. One piece (the climactic “Final Fight”) boasts huge, illustrative drums, and there are plenty of driving, percussive elements to be found in the clap-heavy “Cat & Mouse.”
Occasional drums and claps notwithstanding, Sakamoto, Noto and Dessner’s soundtrack is a consistently brooding, glacially paced marriage of dark ambient and contemporary chamber music that feels both incalculably distant and eerily intimate. If it isn’t the exact sound of struggle, of fear, of biting down on the last thread of existence in a hostile winter wilderness and praying that someone or something is still holding onto the other end, it can’t be off by more than a couple millimeters. And if the pervasive sense of despair it fosters – from the very first strains of “The Revenant Main Theme” to its final reiteration an hour later – is any indication of the film’s emotional trajectory, The Revenant could be Leo’s most dismal flick yet (and that’s saying something).
Like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s trilogy of soundtracks for David Fincher films (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl), the score for The Revenant does double duty as a sort of concept album. With the help of ultra-literal song titles such as “Arriving at Fort Kiowa” and “Powaqa Rescue” (don’t even ask about “Out of Horse”), Sakamoto, Noto and Dessner’s record tells a similar story to that of the film without spoiling the larger piece of art. And despite the fact that the composition and performance credits vary substantially in spots (Dessner’s compositions feature a 25-piece version of conductor André de Ridder’s s t a r g a z e ensemble), the album flows like a river in slow motion throughout. Whether this consistency is due to Sakamoto’s leadership, to the complimentary styles of his collaborators, or the huge cathedral sound of every piece, it dramatically enhances the listenability (and re-listenability) of the album.
Sakamoto’s dramatically different themes for the film (the second of which almost sounds like a collaboration with Thom Yorke) are probably the two most sorrowful pieces on the album, followed closely by Dessner’s gorgeous, droning “Imagining Buffalo,” which crescendoes slowly and upliftingly before suddenly running out of steam. It’s a stunning illustration of hope giving way to exhaustion, regardless of context. And while Alva Noto’s often high-frequency, bit-crushed electronic contributions seem totally alien on paper, they fit snugly into the mostly organic world constructed by his collaborators. Not a single sound is extraneous or distracting. Sakamoto himself adds electronic textures of his own to most of the pieces, with varying degrees of subtlety. Particularly ear-catching is the crackling loop on the atmospheric “Glass and Buffalo Warrior Travel,” which is either a representation of freezing water or a small fire. In any case, it perfectly complements Iñárritu’s naturally lit, blue-white vision of the South Dakota wilderness circa 1823.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack for The Revenant has, like that of Birdman before it, been ruled ineligible for an Academy Award nomination. But that doesn’t make it any less stirring, any less enjoyable than Williams’s score for The Force Awakens or Morricone’s for The Hateful Eight. In fact, the lack of consideration almost seems like a badge of honor. Like Iñárritu and his increasingly ambitious films, those that create his soundtracks seem far more interested in creating a holistic piece of art than winning Oscars, and as a result, their contributions are impressive at any level of magnification. And besides… who wants to compete with Williams and Morricone, anyway?