This review contains spoilers.
Director: Alejandro Inarritu
Writer: Alejandro Inarritu, Mark Smith
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter
The Revenant is an ordeal. A brutal, eye-watering meat grinder that relentlessly punishes its protagonist Hugh Glass, leaving him perpetually on the precipice of death.
It is exhausting to watch and there are moments of extreme violence and ferocity that are seared into my mind, such is the confronting physicality of these scenes – most notably a prolonged bear attack that leaves little to the imagination.
This is a film that will make you squirm and wince in your seat and yet it never felt senseless or gratuitous. There is a craftsmanship to The Revenant that feels measured and purposeful, despite the barbarous nature of the content. Perhaps too, in the back of our minds, is the title credit that advises us that the film is based on true events. This actually happened to someone.
Set in the early 1800s in Montana, The Revenant begins with an ambush on a party of trappers hunting for animal pelts. The raid is lead by a Native American tribe who swiftly take out the majority of the hunting party. We learn that their leader is on the search for his daughter who has been kidnapped. A handful of survivors escape by boat including Captain Henry, Hugh Glass, his half-Native American son Hawk and a scheming opportunist named Fitzgerald.
Against the wishes of Fitzgerald, Glass advises the Captain to forego their boat and travel inland through the forest to escape the Native Americans who are hot on their trail. One morning when Glass scouts ahead of the party, he is attacked by a bear. He miraculously survives but his body is shredded to within an inch of his life. Captain Henry nobly refuses to abandon Glass and instructs the survivors to carry him back to their fort. When the terrain proves too inhospitable to navigate with Glass on a guernsey, Henry offers a bounty for anyone who can attempt to deliver his safe return while the rest of the party pushes on. Fitzgerald senses easy money and volunteers to stay behind with Hawk and a youngster named Bridger.
At his earliest opportunity, Fitzgerald attempts to suffocate Glass but is stopped by Hawk. Fitzgerald murders Hawk in front of his father and then tricks Bridger into abandoning Glass, by telling him a party of Native Americans are descending on their location. Glass is left in a shallow grave. He should die but he doesn’t. He becomes driven by a singular purpose – to find Fitzgerald and avenge the murder of his son Hawk.
Glass’ journey is fraught with peril at every turn. In nearly every instance, we’re reminded of the hostile world that he inhabits. The Montana wilderness is unforgiving with its rocky landscape and sub-Artic conditions. It is inhabited by men of different stripes and backgrounds who are all quick to kill and driven by their own desperation and basest instincts.
In this climate, there are individuals in The Revenant who stand out with their acts of kindness. More often than not, these moments of mercy or compassion lead directly to their demise.
The Revenant is a formidable journey, a 156 minute tribulation that has passages of incredible tension and bloodshed, buffered by scenes of serenity and improbable beauty. Award winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski (Gravity, Birdman) immerses us in the most brutal moments of the film by employing the use of close ups and long takes, and then allows the audience to draw their breath with some elegantly framed glimpses of the natural environment. This is a film that has one of the most bloody and violent animal attacks I can ever recall seeing on film but it also has a peaceful interlude in which two men enjoy catching snowflakes on their tongue. Lubezski has covered himself in glory in recent years with back to back Oscars and he has surely done his chances of winning a third consecutive Academy Award no harm with his work on The Revenant.
I am writing this on the eve of the Academy Award nomination announcements and word is that this is the film that will deliver Leonardo Di Caprio his long overdue Oscar. Time will tell but if that does eventuate I think it is only fitting that he win it with one of his finest performances to date instead of with a belated ‘we should have given this to you sooner’ award. Tom Hardy, near unrecognizable as the sleazy Fitzgerald, also deserves plaudits for his performance. He is scummy, ruthless and eminently hateable.
In critiquing Alejandro Inarritu’s other films over the years, I’ve spoken of how I’ve had mixed feelings about his work. I enjoyed his debut feature Amores Perros but often wondered with his subsequent films if they were too nihilistic and cruel for my tastes. Inarritu won me back with last year’s offbeat Birdman and I think The Revenant is now his best film to date. He has obviously struck gold in his partnership with Lubezski. Long may that union continue.
One thing that’s clear to me is that the best is yet to come from Inarritu. Far from resting on his laurels, his films seem ever-changing in tone, content and style. The Revenant is gruesome, thrilling and spectacular film making.