From the word go there was little doubt that The Revenant would be unlike most Hollywood fare, particularity in light of director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous work.
On paper, Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2014 film Birdman sounded like it had all the makings of a modern Apocalypse Now: an incredibly talented cast, harrowing source material, and reports of an equally troubled shoot in remote locales – all the warning signs were there. The Revenant looked and felt like the sort of big budget auteur experiment that filmmakers often get to make after a Best Picture win, the kind of film that either crashes and burns as an unmitigated commercial and critical disaster or, despite the difficulties in bringing it to the screen, becomes an instant classic.
Well, I’m here to tell you that The Revenant is neither a disaster or an immediate classic, but it is one hell of a movie-going experience.
Based on Michael Punke’s novel about real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass, The Revenant is a classic tale of revenge set in one of the wildest wests ever put on screen. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Glass, a skilled tracker guiding a large fur-trapping expedition into the uncharted wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase. After an attack from the indigenous Arikara kills or wounds most of the expedition, the survivors, including Glass, his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), party leader Captain Henry (Domnhall Gleeson), and Texan trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), attempt to make their way back to friendly territory. Pursued by the Arikara and forced to abandon their furs, things go from bad to worse when Glass is attacked and nearly killed by a mother Grizzly bear. Betrayed and left for dead by his companions, a severely injured Glass fights back from the brink and claws his way across the wilderness towards his revenge.
The first question everyone has asked me about The Revenant since I saw it is “Do you think Leo will win the Oscar?” My answer has generally been some iteration of “I’ve seen less committed performances win Academy Awards.” I can’t think what more the actor could possibly do to nab himself one of those coveted gold statues at this point. Just when you think things can’t get worse for DiCaprio’s character they invariably get much, much worse. Glass hits rock bottom early on and spends the rest of the film figuratively careening towards Hell. It gets so bad for him that there were moments when I actually rooted for him to just give up and die – his physical and emotional gauntlet is a trial to even watch. As DiCaprio’s character grasps and crawls across the backcountry, you can almost see him reaching for that Oscar with every new hardship.
Although most of the film’s marketing has focused on DiCaprio, there are other great performances on display in The Revenant. Hardy is positively vile as Fitzgerald, a trapper whose drive for self-preservation is almost as fiery as Glass’ own desire for revenge. Co-star Domnhall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Star Wars) caps off a stellar year as the principled but beleaguered leader of the expedition, and even famed Dork Shelf hater Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) turns in a praiseworthy performance as Jim Bridger, a young scout torn between his loyalty to Glass and fear of Fitz.
For cinephiles though, the real star of the show is sure to be cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The director of photography behind such films as The New World, Children of Men, Gravity, and most recently Birdman, turns in some of his finest work. In one particularly thrilling horseback chase, an apparently free floating camera is anchored to Glass like a third person camera in a video game might be, shifting with the trapper’s point-of-view as he turns to shoot at his pursuers. It unlike anything most moviegoers have seen before and just one of the many brilliantly shot sequences in the film.
The Revenant is a beautiful but grueling movie from start to finish. Not for the faint of heart or the easily upset, it’s a nearly wordless two and a half hour journey to the deepest pits of human suffering. I know that doesn’t sound like a glowing endorsement and it isn’t really. This movie may very well not be for you. Personally, I don’t know that I ever want to see – or rather put myself through – The Revenant again. But if you’re feeling brave then this is the kind of film worth experiencing at least once – and on the biggest screen you can find. Just don’t forget to bundle up!