Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter
Runtime: 156 Minutes
Following swiftly off the back of his long-deserved Academy recognition, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s latest frontier-pushing accomplishment plunges us right into the heart of the frontier itself. The laboured shoot of The Revenant has already been publicised and established itself as something of a modern Hollywood fable all of its own; a tortured, gruellingly physical endeavour, shot in sequence with an expanding budget that made little use of the comforts of usual Hollywood productions. Pushing both cast and crew to the brink of well-being in order to create an experience as practical and raw as possible, it is a testimony to all involved that even through all of this, The Revenant is as visceral and astonishing a realisation of that vision that anyone could hope for.
The blood, grime and sweat of the film’s production are all on glorious display in what could only be described as a tribute to the power of technical filmmaking. From a visual and aesthetic perspective, the film is a masterpiece of sensory experience and striking natural beauty. Proving that the digital wizardry of Birdman was no big win or fluke, Emmanuel Lubezki solidifies his stature as one of the finest cinematographers currently working. Operating in environments of wholly natural lighting and forceful weather conditions, the great outdoors has rarely felt as hands-on and untameable as it does here. Drawn-out shots of icy landscapes and immediate action sequences have the audience thrown into the struggle at hand as he passes between the fallen figures of a brutal opening sequence, while elsewhere extreme close-ups of our damaged and rotting hero intensify the taxing emotions on display.
This is a fairly straightforward revenge tale that approaches transcendence when seen through the eyes of Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass; a real life fur trapper whose odyssey of pain and suffering has been the source of elaboration for many similar fictitious renderings. The Revenant is no different in its interpretation as the need for elaboration is of course required for storytelling purposes, but the portrait that it paints of his 200-mile journey is as close as anyone would want to get to reliving the horror of his ordeal. The initial bear attack that leaves him in his tattered state is miraculous in its execution, a prolonged and in-camera nightmare that feels as stripped and savage as it appears.
DiCaprio’s performance as Glass is a weighty and memorable one; a less verbal performance than he is usually acquainted with, Leo throws himself into a state of hellish perseverance as he crawls, scrapes and limps his way across the scenery to civilisation. Surviving on the basest of resources and making assets of the bluntest of instruments (the make-up and costume design are as grizzly and dirty as it needs to be), it’s a brutally physical performance up there with the best work of his career.
Pretty much every major speaking role is a captivating character performance from the supporting cast; Tom Hardy once again grumbling his way through backdrop as the vile Fitzgerald, while Domnhall Gleeson holds both composure and accent together as their commanding officer. Will Poulter, as the youngest of the group, continues to prove himself a phenomenal talent as the emotional adolescent coming to grips with his own moral standing and placement in this world of men. The depiction of the Native American’s toils in the face of these invaders is dwelled upon in some manner too, as we see the devastation left in the wake of the violence at both parties hands.
An immediate source of reference for a film of this scale might be Werner Herzog’s similarly psychoactive Aguirre, Wrath of God, or a more contemporary partner may be found in the likes of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, a similarly gruelling cinematic assault that brandishes its action with a thick aura of prompt authenticity. Unlike these though, The Revenant’s strengths may be taken in similarity to Joe Carnahan’s man vs. nature tale The Grey, with its use of ferocious action and merciless bloodlust keeping the film at a lofty pace, thrust forward by the audiences screams of encouragement to Glass and his campaign of vengeance.
As with most Iñárritu pictures, there’s a pretence of arty turgidity embedded in the screenplay that all too often rears its head in an effort to endow the story with a sense of higher purpose. Apparitions of Glass’ long deceased wife invade the story at intervals to remind the audience of his contextual motivation, so often that at times it feels out of place with the rough and direct attitude of the film’s mode of address. It’s more a symptom of the director’s overbearing prowess than the story itself.
Besides these relative qualms though, The Revenant is fundamental filmmaking and probably the most consistently great film Iñárritu has made since his debut with Amores Perros. A shocking, blunt depiction of man’s combat with nature and the cultural collapse at the edge of the world. It’s an icy, smoking test of ability and a visceral showcase of uninhabited beauty that puts you through the wringer with its outward hero, and a nauseous understanding that violence will only beget violence in the most desperate of circumstances.