The Revenant is the historically inspired story of Hugh Glass, an 1820’s fur trapper who overcomes a bear attack and travels the wilderness to find and murder the man who killed his son and left him for dead.
The Revenant is one of those movies that comes along every once in a while, takes one look around and announces, “I think it’s time to set the bar a little higher!” The scope of the production is almost too insane to comprehend let alone pull off – but pull it off Alejandro G. Inarritu did.
In audacious fashion, the Mexican filmmaker chose to film this barbaric tale of revenge in chronological order and made the call to use only natural lighting on set. By that I mean cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who is gunning for his third Oscar in a row here) was forced to use the sun as his light source when shooting the movie. An unnecessary extravagance? Maybe but the finished product speaks for itself.
The Revenant – for lack of a better word – is fucking beautiful. From the visceral tracking shots during the action sequences (more on them in a moment) to the lingering frames of frozen North American wilderness, every second of the movie counts as a conscious and deliberate piece of photography. As the camera settles on mountainous forests, vast snowy plains and unfathomable careering rapids, the sheer size of the undertaking becomes apparent.
Yet it was not an task the cast and crew shied away from – in Leonardo DiCaprio’s case, the unbearable slog to the finish line could also be the one which defines his career. His performance as frontiersman Hugh Glass goes to show the depths he is prepared to go to for his craft. DiCaprio brings an immense physicality to the role, practically going to the same lengths as his fictional counterpart – and yes that means he really did chomp down on bison liver – but that is simply what the film demanded. The Revenant relies on the strenuous torment Glass’s body must go through in order to have his revenge, and DiCaprio more than convincingly sells that pain and anguish. While many (myself included) believe he should have won the Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s looking likelier by the day that he’ll finally take home the coveted statue. It seems the punishment is not without its reward.
But the strength of that single performance should not in any way undermine the talent or commitment of the rest of the ensemble cast. Tom Hardy occupies the role of the primary antagonist, John Fitzgerald, and its his actions that give birth to Glass’ relentless pursuit. While the character is somewhat conventional and just as despicable going into the film as he is coming out, Hardy wrangles together a concoction of selfishness and a complete lack of empathy in a man who also isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. At times he slips into that Hardy “mumble” (could anybody else not understand him in Lawless?) but it’s not enough to detract from another powerhouse display.
Domnhall Gleeson and Will Poulter both do a fine job as the two other main players (the former as the leader of the hunting team; the latter as an inexperienced fur trapper) and it’s around these two actors that the moral pendulum swings. Through their interactions with Glass and Fitzgerald, you begin to understand that this is just as much a story of the human spirit than it is endurance. By the end of it, you’ll quickly realise that everything isn’t as black and white as you’d like to think, such is the way with Man.
In the end, The Revenant leaves you shaken, tired and a little bit sore. While it is an obscene exercise in physical graft and filmmaking craft, there’s enough depth and weight to separate it from others in the “revenge movie” sub-genre. What Inarritu, DiCaprio and everyone involved has achieved is nothing short of a masterpiece, a feat of cinematic style rarely seen in an age of convenience.
Movie rating: (5 / 5)