Release Date: January 8th, 2016 (US); January 15th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter
Before The Revenant, cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki shot Birdman with such technical wizardry he garnered significant critical acclaim. The floating, stalking style he employed throughout the film manifested itself in the paranoid exterior of Birdman’s central character Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Alejandro González Iñárritu’s newest epic is a visual feast that again transcends simple splendour, similarly mirroring the harrowing and heartening journey of its protagonist, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio).
A brutal insurgence sets the unflinching tone while also highlighting the perversely wonderful landscape. Lubezki tags this opening sequence, which goes on for many minutes, with a nauseating sense of disorientation: arrows splice necks indiscriminately as bodies burn and blister. The conditions are pretty horrid and only get worse, and the audience is not let off lightly — Lubezki’s cinematography might occasionally disperse beauty but when the tough times assume focus, you’re right there with the unlucky Glass (at one point waves literally batter the camera lens).
Describing Glass as unlucky is an understatement. Having led a band of fur trappers around the northern regions of America, a bear attack renders the hunter severely incapacitated. His camp, behind on their expedition following decimation at the hands of a group of Arikara Native Americans searching for their chief’s daughter, collectively decide to leave him in the hands of his half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the inexperienced Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald, consumed by antipathy and greed, subsequently leaves for Glass for dead.
As such, ongoing themes of retribution (“Revenge is in the creator’s hands”) and guilt (“We all saw it,” says Fitzgerald, trying to redirect blame) loom large. The two coalesce to fund this overriding examination of karma’s role in nature — having invaded the Arikara natives’ land, western hunters find themselves either dead, nearly dead, or morally dying. Even Domhnall Gleeson’s character, the captain of the expedition and arguably one of the more righteous on-screen characters, is burdened by a sense injustice and guilt. The Arikara natives, meanwhile, represent karma in human form, defending their honour and fighting capital-driven colonialism: they are judge, jury and executioner.
The aforementioned bear assault is impressive and harrowing, so much so that Glass’ survival actually beggars belief. You really need to buy into Iñárritu’s oft-included spiritual strand at this point and accept that there is some sort of superior healing going on (spirituality later manifests as a dove emerging from the chest of Glass’ deceased wife and as a perched black crow awaiting death). Given his abject surroundings, numerous gaping wounds and eventual solitude, it is miracle that Glass pulls through — to compound the matter, he wears a bearskin coat which reminds us of his survival instinct.
DiCaprio is great, as has become the norm, but the version of Hugh Glass we meet in The Revenant isn’t all that interesting. That we feel anything more than natural sympathy for the fur trapper is a testament to the actor’s rugged portrayal and, crucially, his commitment. Not the method actory stuff like raw bison chewing or raw carcass sheltering, but the emotional commitment DiCaprio shows from start until finish, by which point he did manage to coax some eye-welling out of me. And that’s pretty good going given we only really see the broken, vengeful side of Glass: he carves Fitzgerald’s name into the landscape as a motivational tool to stay alive.
Hardy itches and grunts his way through a performance that might strike some as scenery chewing (there’s a lot of scenery ripe for chewing), but that genuinely had me gripped. He is uncomfortably magnetic playing a truly evil man who does not appear to have any primal strength, only a lawless prerogative and a heartlessness bred out of self-centred durability. Menace blazes from his eyes: “You just have to blink [to die],” he informs a hurt Glass, fully aware the latter’s eyes cannot possibly hold out. Iñárritu shot in sequence and it shows: you can see weariness increasingly impede upon the actors to the point that they mightn’t even be acting. Will Poulter is also excellent as Fitzgerald’s innocent understudy, a spark of humanity among the viciousness.
Snowy forest locales are reminiscent of Edward Zwick’s Defiance, and are just as haunting too. Skyward shots of trees are frequent, depicting a barrage of tentacles ready to strike and engulf those below. Despite the general vastness, the film has a claustrophobic feel denoting no reprieve and no escape. Lubezki shows white mountainscapes and ice-carpeted valleys akin to those in The Fellowship of the Ring, though the visuals extend beyond scope, incorporating harshness and wince-inducing iconography to great effect. The score, a joint effort from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, is invasive and chilling — this time it is The Return of the King that springs to mind (see Sméagol’s transformation into Gollum) as eerie whistles build disconcerting tension.
In essence, what we’ve got is Max Mad: Fury Road without the exhilarating zing and character depth. The Revenant is a challenging watch, but not necessarily challenging to process. The themes are broad and like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, there is an anomalous quality at play in that the film feels both narratively weightless and technically marvellous. You might consider this Iñárritu’s version of 21st century silent cinema; often suffocated by a lack of engaging verbiage, the movie’s main protagonist never feels fully formed. But for what The Revenant is and for what it is trying to do, this Wild Wild North tale has a tendency to stun.
Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox