“I ain’t afraid to die anymore, I’ve done it already.”
If he’s being honest with himself, writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu isn’t all that concerned with telling the extraordinary true story of Hugh Glass. No, The Revenant is far more drawn to immersing its audience into a unique visual and sensory experience of survival against a harsh and unforgiving American landscape. More tableau than tale, it’s the violent, nightmarish fantasy film that Terrence Malick hasn’t yet produced. Audiences will be put through the ultimate endurance test, by baring witness to a relentless series of stunning imagery that combines beauty and brutality together, for horrific and gruelling effect.
Iñárritu knows what he has constructed here. The Revenant is uncompromisingly gripping and relentless viewing, which pushes his star to his absolute limits. It’s also a not-so-subtle large scaled, artistic project to finally help Leonardo DiCaprio capture that allusive golden statue that has evaded his grasp for so long (see the final shot as confirmation of this intention).
DiCaprio plays Glass, a frontiersman who is sensitive to the land and the native people he knows intimately. Our journey begins with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera gliding calmly (the only occasion of such rest) through a flowing stream. Eventually Lubezki’s lens reveals a frozen Dakota and a large contingent of fur-trappers trying to make a living in the most austere of conditions.
The audience is granted very little time to acclimatise themselves to the setting before a tribe of native indians start to ambush the trappers in a visceral sequence that feels like Iñárritu’s western response to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. From the second the very first arrow is shot, the film shifts into full scale survival mode for the remainder of its running time.
Much has been publicised about the severity of the shooting conditions, and it’s not hard to believe these reports. Iñárritu’s attention to detail is on full display here and the actors’ discomfort is clearly visible. The costuming, production design, practical sets and natural lighting all add to this vision of stark, authentic helplessness. Even the infamous CGI bear attack is shot and handled in a terrifyingly believable manner. It’s possibly more intense and gruesome to witness than my words can explain and it’s a scene that would rival almost any horror film.
All of this is to set the stage for, arguably, DiCaprio’s most physically challenging acting role to date. After being mauled to within an inch of his life, Glass’s crew must now navigate the wintery wilderness without their guide and Glass must somehow get back to his base camp on his own.
DiCaprio is almost stripped completely of any dialogue, mostly because after the savage attack he’s left mortally wounded and alone. The actor is literally dragged through hell, as he’s forced to single handedly haul his broken and battered corpse through the mud, snow and ice just to survive his next horrific encounter. Think the ludes scene in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, except play that out for almost 152 minutes.
While I wouldn’t begrudge the Academy finally making up for their mistakes and handing DiCaprio his coveted award, I would state for the record that while this is an excellent and committed Leo performance, it is not his best. Glass has been drawn a little too broadly as a character and there’s not enough depth for DiCaprio to really sink his teeth into. Yes the physicality is there, but there’s little else. Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald on the other hand, is the far more compelling character, as a man whose treachery and despicable actions firmly align with his character’s motivations. He’s not just a black-hatted villain, Hardy infuses Fitzgerald with a number of wonderful acting touches to provide the character with a perplexing moral ambiguity that makes sense upon reflection.
Where The Revenant works best is in its technical wizardry. Having prior knowledge of the shooting conditions before watching the film, my mouth was constantly ajar in awe and wonder as I tried to fathom how on earth they achieved some of their stunning photography. Unsurprisingly, cinematographer Lubezki has once again captured a beautiful tapestry of images, each one more exquisite and beguiling than the last. The natural lighting only adds to the evocative realism of the piece. Isolation and revenge have never looked so gorgeous.
Those seeking complex characters and a richly detailed script will be left disappointed. The Revenant is a film one must breathe in and look upon in awe. The haunting score by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto registers, at times, as some kind of religious ceremony. As with any spiritual encounter, the experience will differ from being to being, and it will be deeply personal. Hence why the film will prove to be so divisive amongst audience members. But for many, The Revenant will echo inside your soul and take your breath away.