Since Birdman won the Academy Award for Best Picture this past year, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s latest project has been highly anticipated. After months of rumors and horror stories of a grueling production, Iñárritu returns with The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In typical Iñárritu fashion, it is an intensely gripping experience as beautiful as it is brutal.
The Revenant is truly epic, not only for its significant length (156 minutes), but also for its fierce ambition and unwavering commitment set in the frigid, uncharted American wilderness of the early 1800s. The screenplay was written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith (who previously penned the horror film Vacancy) and was based on Michael Punke’s novel of the same name based on true events. Iñárritu’s is known for his bold visions and ambitious endeavors which won him some well-deserved Oscar buzz last year but his new project may not make the cut in 2016 due to its disturbing nature. The film, however violent and brutal, is a masterwork of human suffering and it is as intensely harrowing as it is compelling. It is a brave attempt at turning a story that could easily be a standard western-revenge thriller into a beautifully retrospective view of survival.
DiCaprio stars as the seemingly indestructible frontiersman Hugh Glass, who joins a fur-trapping expedition after his wife- a member of the Pawnee tribe- is murdered. The team of fur-trappers suffers an attack by Arikara warriors, Glass and a few surviving men (including his son) try to get back to safety. Soon after the attack, Glass is mauled by a bear and barely survives in a scene that is exceptionally brutal. Glass manages to defeat the bear but not before a lengthy, gruesome fight to the death. Glass is rendered immobile and is abandoned by his team and subsequently recovers from his injuries and seeks revenge in the harsh wilderness.
Even before the bear attack, DiCaprio hardly says a word. Most of the dialogue is between Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) who are often seen bickering. Fitzgerald is immediately presented as the most villainous member of the team and Henry is an honest, authoritative leader. Given the roles Hardy and Gleeson typically play, this is not much of a stretch but it does, however, make them more than capable. However talented the cast may be, DiCaprio is never once allowed to be outperformed.
After he is attacked, Glass can hardly move, let alone speak. This gives DiCaprio the perfect opportunity to do what he does best on screen: suffer. Many of his past roles required a considerable level of intensity, tension and unwavering commitment such as the aggressive Calvin Candie from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the unstable Edward Daniels from Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and the mysterious Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. He has a penchant for completely committing to each role and Hugh Glass is no different. There are already rumors of him sleeping inside animal carcasses and eating raw bison liver to prepare for the role. Even if none of it is true, these stories lend themselves to the mythical persona of Leonardo DiCaprio which may be reinforced by those who still believe that a commitment to method acting deserves an Academy Award.
Often times, Glass reflects on wise words from his deceased wife who is often seen hovering above him in dreams or beckoning him toward her as if congratulating him for a job well done. She is a very stereotypical portrayal of a Native American woman and she speaks of the wind often, she offers vaguely religious advice, and, as she dies, a bird is seen flying out of her fatal wound, indicating her passing. She is not given much room to be an actual factor in the story (nor even a name, befitting such a “manly” enterprise) and serves as a voice of support and wisdom when Glass needs it most. She appears as more of a symbol than anything else. She is a beacon of warmth, wisdom, and compassion that the men in the film severely lack. She provides a warm light in the midst of darkness that promotes the murky significance that the film attempts to convey.
The uncharted frontier is almost a character of its own as it changes, evolves, and influences the story significantly. The wilderness is the strongest and most relentless force constantly meeting Glass with new horrors and challenges. Glass finds ways to survive by using the wilderness as his ally instead of his enemy. He does not fight against it as much as he works alongside it. Even in the river’s strongest currents, it still provides food and drinkable water. Even in the harshest topographies, there are still others, like Glass, willing to lend a hand to those also trying to survive.
Contributing mightily is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who is once again allowed to put his talent and exceptional craft to work as he has before in films such as Birdman, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life. He is a cinematic artist and expert in his use of natural light. Every scene is a fluid rhythm of movement and action that never seems to stop pulsating until the very end. The wild is portrayed almost as a living, breathing entity. It is present in every scene and there is not a single moment when the audience is allowed to lose a sense of where they are. The film is overloaded of visuals of the vast, heartless landscape to a point that it almost outshines its stars. Lubezki captures a world so vivid and so authentic that when it snows on screen, you may feel a chill run down your spine.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Iñárritu proves himself, yet again, as a determined and committed director. The film should be viewed for exactly what it is: a violent, compelling tale of surviving in a cruel, wild American countryside. The story, though grim, is a breathtaking plunge into unforgiving territory and Iñárritu does not allow the audience a moment of peace as there is always the steady, pulsing assurance of revenge. Again and again, even in the direst circumstances, we are reminded that as long as one can draw a breath, there is hope for survival and renewal. Iñárritu’s commitment to tell such a story is what truly sets it apart and the filmmaker plunged into the uncharted wilderness of cinematic storytelling to create an ambitious vision that truly stands alone. The Revenant is a breath of fresh air among the sugar-coated, commercial, “feel-good” films that it seems to specifically strive to diverge from the current. While a story such as this cannot be anything less than disturbing and horrific, it is also a beautifully woven tale of survival.