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How does a film conjure the unfathomable vastness of nature? How can it make moviegoers feel the harshness of a desolate place?
These are some of the challenges director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) faced in creating The Revenant, a revenge thriller that stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a fur trapper who's been left for dead. After a little while, like maybe 10 seconds into the trailer, you realize that there's only so much a filmmaker can do to capture the scope of the forbidding American West in winter. The snow-covered mountains all look alike. The sweeping vistas in fading afternoon light all blend together. There's a limit to the horizon-gazing.
But cue up a low, slow-moving chordal drone, let it hang like an ominous gray cloud over a scene, and just like that you've summoned the profound disquiet of a desolate place. The bleakness of a landscape becomes suddenly vivid. Sound deepens the foreboding while adding a sense of psychoactive urgency. In the same way Antonio Sanchez's sizzling drumming became a window into the interior life of Birdman's main character, the score of The Revenant — which was mostly written and performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, with additional music from The National's Bryce Dessner and German electronic artist Alva Noto — provides the film with its emotional baseline. Brooding and expansive slowness (which feels breathy and natural even when synthesizers are involved) runs pretty much throughout the music. It amplifies the serenity of the calm scenes and then, with little change in the musical content, underscores the more terrifying fight scenes. The subliminal message: In this realm, tension is a constant, and it's meted out in carefully calibrated degrees. No rattling drum marches are used to telegraph the drama.
Sakamoto has long displayed mastery of the soundscape: Some of his most breathtaking albums are built on pristine, perfectly ornamented ambient drones. Here, he makes his slow-moving backdrops poignant by emulating the austerity of the film's setting: The elegy "Goodbye To Hawk" is rendered by a flitting, flute-like synthesizer as it plays gorgeously sloping melodies every now and then — melodies that describe the graceful gestures of a bird in flight. A solo cello does similarly evocative swooping later on, in "The Revenant Theme 2" — which, in one of the few moments of "conventional" movie scoring, is anchored by typically melodramatic lilting piano chords. It's also one of the few pieces, along with a pulsating chase scene and the percussive "Final Fight," to operate in a fixed tempo. Much of the music unfolds according to its own clock, moving (or, more accurately, not really moving) with a stately, curtain-opening sense of majesty. In these audio tableaux, tiny shifts of texture and harmony can have brutal, seismic impact.
Sakamoto successfully battled throat cancer during the making of The Revenant, but that's just one reason a team of composers contributes to the score: The film is long, and Iñárritu wanted specific tonal colors he'd heard in a concert piece Dessner wrote for Kronos Quartet. Dessner created string-orchestra scenes ("Imagining Buffalo" is one) for the film that operate on two levels at once — they're seemingly placid on the surface, but with churning, fitful energy coursing underneath. In a few places, Dessner's orchestrations were superimposed over a first-draft demo created by Sakamoto on the ancient Prophet 5 synthesizer. You'd think the contrast between acoustic strings and synthesized elements would create a confused jumble within this kind of score, but the opposite is true: Sakamoto balances these devices masterfully, using them to conjure the breathtaking beauty of nature, the random terror of nature, and just about everything in between.