If Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win his Best Actor Oscar for The Revenant then I doubt there’s any extremes left for him to go to. His performance in the film – a kind of Passion Play depicting one man’s suffering and hardships – is brutal and immersive, as is the movie surrounding him.The misfortunes that befall his lead character Hugh Glass pile up to a sometimes comical degree, but you can’t deny the primal power that director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu wields in this epic tale of frontier justice and the spiritual rebirth of a man back from the dead.
From the in media res opening it’s clear that Iñárritu is once again (after last year’s award-winning Birdman) employing his signature style in pursuit of a you-are-there level of immediacy. There’s long, unbroken tracking shots and steadicam takes that follow the battle between American fur-traders and a marauding band of Natives, as the violence escalates in stomach-churning fashion. No one dies easy or quietly, as muskets, knives and tomahawks make the killing personal and gut-wrenching.
Local guide Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) manages to escape with his teenaged son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the scattered remains of the American traders. The inexperienced Captain Henry (Domnhall Gleason) defers to Glass’s experience when choosing their next course of action, while the sneering racist Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) cries foul, especially in light of Glass’s family (his deceased wife, the mother of Hawk, was a Native woman).
It’s a minimal amount of setup, with the date eventually being revealed as 1823 and the wild frontier as an untamed portion of The Louisiana Purchase (Montana to be exact). Forced to stash their valuable pelts and faced with the looming threat of winter, the hunting party’s fortunes go from bad to worse when Glass runs into a big ole brown bear. In the type of scene that could do for forests what Jaws did for the open water, Glass is mauled horribly, suffering grievous injuries.
Despite being very nearly shredded to death at the claws of the bear, Glass’s day goes from bad to worse as he’s left in the care of Fitzgerald, Hawk and the unassuming Bridger (Will Poulter), and Fitzgerald looks to end Glass’s suffering with an unwelcome mercy kill. It quickly becomes clear that there’s no limit to the suffering, both mental and physical, that Iñárritu will pile upon Glass.
DiCaprio subverts his movie-star magnetism in the role. Glass is a man of few words, instead showing his mettle through arduous action. The pain of the overlong, over-budget and generally difficult Canadian shoot (amusingly detailed here) is writ across his and every other actor’s face. And if Dicaprio is one of the final remaining true-blue moviestars, then The Revenant confirms it with his all-in performance. Whether it’s going waist-deep in a freezing river or eating an actual buffalo liver (and wretching, which was the take used in the movie) there’s little that DiCaprio won’t do here in the pursuit of the harsh realities of 19th-century frontier life.
And while Leo is great, it’s Tom Hardy as antagonist Fitzgerald that feels like the more natural of the two. Hardy, a master of accents, is doing a Pennsylvania one here (think “wooter” instead of water) and is terrifying in his portrayal of a self-serving menace with a deep hatred of Natives. Much of the second half of the movie is Glass crawling back from the dead to hunt down Fitzgerald and seek his revenge, and the story wouldn’t have the same impact without Hardy in the role.
While those two men are the stars of The Revenant, the real draw is actually the stunning cinematography and sound design that capture the deadliness of nature in intimate and bone-crunching detail. Iñárritu chose to shoot with natural light (like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), a decision that lends the film a totally unique look that feels incredibly visceral and real. Some of the spiritual elements of Glass’s journey fall flat but it’s hard not be awed by the magnificent reveals of snowy vistas or raging rivers that Iñárritu captures here.
The Revenant (at over 2 and a half hours long) is incredibly ambitious in its scope and narrative. Iñárritu shows the various fighting factions (The Americans, The French and The Natives) all engaging in acts of war of varying degrees of inhumanity, stacking misery on top of misery until the tower threatens to tumble. And while the story finds no real room for levity (save for one scene where Glass shares a moment with a helpful stranger) the intensity can become suffocating, threatening to numb frayed nerve endings with its unending hardships.
But like Glass tells his son Hawk, you just have to breathe. As a redemptive tale of survival against all odds, The Revenant soars on the strength of its technical mastery and some fine acting. And even if the story flounders at times, it’s a worthwhile journey to be awed at the power and majesty of nature. It’ll also make you invest in bear mace for your next hike.
The Revenant (2015)
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Runtime: 156 minutes