The Revenant Review
There are moments in The Revenant where the camera lens itself steams up with the husky breaths of its frontiersmen. It’s the final layer on a wondrous spectacle that’s enough to coax even the most sceptical, self-aware viewer into believing they’re battling for survival in the wilderness of 19th century America.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has made a conscious effort to shun the green screen and brave the elements in order to deliver the most authentic, encompassing and convincing vision of a time and place. Enduring, perhaps even surviving, The Revenant’s brutal and beautiful landscape is the closest you’ll come to experiencing life on nature’s frontier without grabbing your furs, donning your Davey Crocket hat, and plunging yourself head first into a freezing lake.
The film’s central narrative is surprisingly simple given the scale of the production. It’s merely a case of one man’s quest for revenge; the man in question is fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Following a bloody clash with the indigenous people, Glass and his hunting expedition are forced to abandon their wears and cross the inhospitable landscape to reach home. Matters are soon worsened when Glass is near fatally wounded in a punishing struggle with a grizzly bear.
With Glass unable to continue, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) offers a reward to the men willing to stay with their fallen comrade until he regains the strength to continue or must be given a proper burial. Glass’s son Hawk (Jim Bridger), youthful Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and antagonistic John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) agree to stay behind, but once isolated Fitzgerald murders Hawk and dupes the naïve Bridger into leaving Glass to die. Of course, Glass is far from finished. In a literal resurrection, he crawls from his shallow grave and plots his quest for revenge on the duplicitous killer of his son.
The best place to start with The Revenant is the beginning because it’s absolutely glorious. With a solitary arrow piercing the calm air, the tranquillity of the trappers’ camp is shattered. In a scene reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan’s hellish Normandy landings, the Native Americans assault the unsuspecting frontiersmen. The carnage is filmed in a collection of long takes that place themselves in the heart of the action. Switching between Glass and Fitzgerald the camera spins, twists, ducks and weaves as if desperately trying to take in the death and violence all around. This kinetic energy, combined with the long takes, creates the amazing sensation of bracing realism. We’re wholly convinced that even off camera the action is still persisting. It’s just brilliant, immersive filmmaking.
Before we’ve barely caught our breath, Iñárritu throws another long-busting spectacle at us. Once again taking cues from his Oscar winning film Birdman, DiCaprio’s mortal combat with a bear comes at us in a mesmerising one take sequence. It all begins with a swirling 360º shot pivoted on Glass that draws an impending sense of dread and helplessness. Then, from a low, close vantage point we can feel, and concurrently wince, at every slashing blow delivered by this hulking creature on Glass. At one point the bear triumphantly looms over the stricken Glass, its saliva and huffs of breath showering the camera lens. The opening appears impossible to top, but this unbroken battle between man and nature is a rush of frighteningly real exhilaration.
With these two sequences cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki looks in good stead to bag a third Oscar in as many years, following on from successes with both Birdman and Gravity. But it’s not just these spellbinding set pieces that standout, it’s his ability to convey a sense of grandiose to the imposing, insurmountable, land. The shots and scenery are carefully chosen to evoke the most dramatic and beautiful backdrops; a man in a barren canyon dwarfed by mountains, the stream in the woods glistening with desperate rays of sun, or the cascading waterfalls that seem to plunge forever. Lubezki’s camera, often shooting from a low angle, conveys nature as a dominating presence capable of reducing the temporal visitors to mere blemishes on its landscape.
Amongst all these sweeping landscapes are acts of merciless brutality. At every turn there’s a tortuous event to endure; rape, murder, lynching and mutilation are all present. The trials of Glass’ quest never lapse into gratuitous violence, rather they merely reflect a lawless period in America’s history. With this in mind, when Glass is forced to traverse a freezing cold river or eat raw buffalo entrails it feels like DiCaprio is really living these moments.
Iñárritu has pushed for authenticity at every turn and with DiCaprio he’s found someone willing to blur the line between fiction and reality. Dialogue is sparse throughout, for the most past Glass cuts an isolated crusader, but that doesn’t prevent DiCaprio from producing a towering display. Mud and ice populate his bushy mane, dried blood streaks across his face, but it’s the feral look in his eyes that convinces us that Glass and DiCaprio are existing in perfect harmony.
All the talk will be about whether DiCaprio can finally capture that elusive Oscar, but his co-stars are deserving of a positive mention. Tom Hardy falls back into his villainous tendencies as mangy mumbling antagonist Fitzgerald. He’s a truly despicable character. His actions are dictated by a short sighted selfishness, an approach which is constantly validated by his guilty admissions of “we did what we had to do”. In a world lacking in morals, fellow trappers Domhnall Gleeson (he’s everywhere!) and Will Poulter provide beacons of hope. Poulter plays an especially key role, opposite Hardy, sparking a wider debate about the morals of survival on the remorseless frontier.
If rumours are to be believed then The Revenant’s testing production was as a tumultuous and eventful as the now legendary ordeals of Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now. Watching The Revenant in its final form you can feel sacrifice and strife in its essence. Iñárritu’s decision to abandon the sanctuary of sets and film lots is well and truly vindicated. A film of such epic ambition seems impossible to imagine, let alone produce, in any other circumstances. The Revenant isn’t an easy watch, it’s long, arduous and unrelentingly bleak at times, but it’s one of the most rewarding, transformative, journeys cinema can take you on.
9/10 – The Revelation