Release: Friday, January 8, 2016
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu; Mark L. Smith
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
There are some things in The Revenant that you can’t un-see. Like the bloody confrontation between the Arikara tribe and Captain Andrew Henry’s men in the very first scene. Or a human body torn apart by monstrous bear claws. These moments transcend shock value, they go beyond the call of dramatic duty, depicted so authentically so as to become genuinely upsetting.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Oscar-friendly Birdman doesn’t get any less haggard as it plods onward, but the bloodletting slows just enough for us to catch our breath and get our feet back under us. Through a protracted adventure across harsh winterscapes, one that favors physical over verbal communication, Iñárritu’s epic vision confirms those who tough out the opening half hour will be well-equipped to handle everything Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass must go through in the ensuing two-plus hours.
Acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Alfonso Cuarón’s right-hand man, drops us into the early 1800s. It’s man against nature; us against the sprawling, unforgiving territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Even from a distance and in comfy theater chairs, feeling cold and exposed is an inevitability. Lubezki’s fiercely uncompromising artistry — a refusal to use anything but the natural light a pale sun and dusty, white-washed landscapes provide — ensures that of all the things we are going to feel, safe won’t be one of them. This is his movie as much as it is the director’s (and Leo’s). Iñárritu directs a script he co-wrote with Mark L. Smith, one that tells of a remarkable true story of survival and human courage.
The premise is simple, one of those one-line blurbs that could present a problem to those who weren’t enthralled by the chase in Mad Max: Fury Road; this is an all-out crawl against the odds as Glass hunts down the man responsible for killing his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) after Glass is mauled by a bear and left for dead by Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and his men. The Revenant isn’t interested in making things complicated because society at this stage isn’t exactly what you’d call civilized. People get by on raw bison liver and don the skin of bears they’ve just killed for protection from the elements.
Yet, there is a reward for enduring, not just in terms of its occasionally stomach-turning imagery. The bulk of the narrative pivots around Glass’ interactions with the great outdoors, the pace often slowing to a literal crawl but not once does it become lethargic. Of course, come the end we still hope the wait has been worthwhile — will we get that ultimate showdown between good and evil? How will justice be meted out? As much as we want to shield our eyes from the next confrontation, the trifecta of superior directing, acting and photography simply doesn’t allow it.
In a film like this, the protagonist is only as good as the villain he must face. While nature is in itself a force to be reckoned with, The Revenant has been gifted Tom Hardy, who plays John Fitzgerald, a thoroughly despicable fur trapper whose ideological differences with Glass’ headstrong explorer type drive the narrative forward. The tension between them can at times be unbearable, the look in Hardy’s eyes frightening and proof that Charles Bronson was merely practice for the big leagues. But the hostility of Native American tribes might well take the cake in terms of driving home the tragedy of what America once was.
So, what of Leo then? And why have I put off discussing him for so long? It should come as no surprise that some of the film’s best-kept secrets — many thankfully avoid ruination by not featuring in the overplayed trailers — hinge on what Leo does and does not do with his body. Imagining a role where an actor must do more to convey the physicality of early American life is nigh on impossible. As he inches his way from one life-threatening obstacle to the next, his Quaalude-induced spasms in The Wolf of Wall Street become a far crawl from true greatness. But Leo’s not just another decomposing body in a picture filled with death and decay.
Glass is a fiercely protective father. His paternal instinct is his trump card, a tenderness and passion for rearing his child the right way offering balance to a character with great potential to come across all too heroic and mythological. Whatever distances we try to put between ourselves and the brutes we face here, there’s no denying little has changed about the fact parents are willing to do anything to protect their children from the indiscriminate terribleness of the world. DiCaprio is nothing less than incredible here. (I won’t say Oscar-winning lest I jinx the whole damn thing.)
It’s well-known The Revenant was a very difficult movie to make, though not for financial reasons. The cast and crew suffered brutal conditions. The shoot was described as “hellish.” If the actors look like they’re very uncomfortable in their respective scenes, that’s probably because they are. Many of the original staff didn’t see the project to its end. Shot on location in the Canadian Rockies and in Argentina, the film pulses with a vitality that’s impossible to stage. Natural beauty brilliantly disguises the film’s black heart. Every time I had to shield my eyes — I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but yeah, I did — I then reminded myself what a thing of beauty it was that I was witnessing.
Recommendation: This film is not for the squeamish. Raw power, visceral imagery and blunt honesty combine with legendary performances to create a film that will be impossible to forget, much less imitate. I haven’t seen the Mexican auteur’s full filmography yet, but I have this nagging feeling he might have just hit a career high with this stripped-back and naturalistic production. A must-see for fans of DiCaprio.
Running Time: 156 mins.
Quoted: “You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it, Glass? . . . ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ gon’ bring your boy back.”
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