While audiences love watching Bear Grylls surviving in the wilderness on the TV screen, Alejandro G. Iñárritu shows us the real deal on the cinema screen. Detailing (very loosely) the mythic frontier test of endurance with the wild-west quest for payback, The Revenant strives to blend epic survival with classic revenge thriller.
Set in 1823, Hugh Glass(Leonardo DiCaprio) is savagely mauled by a grizzly, with little chance of survival. Hoping to earn a quick buck, former partner Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) quickly abandons Glass to the hinterlands, unaware just how far DiCaprio will go in his hunt for the Oscar. The odds aren’t just stacked against bear-mauled Glass however, who treks gorgeous American winter in hellish pursuit of his nemesis. Iñárritu’s cast and crew have also endured their own cinematic odyssey, with ambitious principal photography shot-in-sequence; harsh weather conditions; and even real animal carcass bedsheets for DiCaprio. In front or behind the camera, The Revenant is a film on nature’s brutality.
And natural is just how cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki wants this film to be, as the film was only shot with natural lighting of the sky which meant a daunting few hours a day to get a shot or two. All in pristine focus, Lubezki begins the film with a Sistine tableu of the Western Frontier as American hunters are besieged by a native tribe. The landscape pornography is vast but imposing, with acute detail to every snowflake or icicle from a mountain cave to DiCaprio’s beard. The bear scene takes the cake for set pieces however, as the camera steadily watches Glass slowly becoming an ursine ragdoll. With two consecutive Oscars already in his backpocket, three can still be the magic number for Lubezki.
Ryuchi Sakomoto’s score also serves as a fine compliment: nothing too intrusive, but enough lumbering chords to help us follow Glass’ journey.
But Leo has no music to keep him going, as he plays what is probably the most challenging role he’s ever played (besides perhaps his role as Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). As raw as the fish and bison he devours, Leo’s feral dedication to his work mostly conveys the internal struggles of the film through rasps and wheezes. While the performance is meaty, the commitment is truly inspiring. Tom Hardy also works as an exceptional villain against DiCaprio, as Fitzgerald comes across as a petty brute with no qualms in killing his crew for an extra share in the profits – the most intriguing character in the film. Even though the dialogue of these two characters becomes an audible trial for the audience, they’re convincing enough to let it slide. Will Poulter’s nice-guy act and Domhnall Gleeson’s moral fibred captain are also nice additions to this cast of few, yet the relationship between DiCaprio and his son (Forrest Goodluck) is a disappointment in the inevitable trajectory it clearly takes, making it difficult for us to invest in him as a genuine character.
The film does have a fairly decent portrayal of the Native American history however, often giving us scenes that reveal just how fractured these groups are from violent colonialism. While there are arguably the occasional tropes of the all-healing Pawnee, the scenes themselves work very well in depicting an unbiased view on the cultural schisms in nineteenth-century America.
The Revenant is certainly grand, epic and very real film (even with CGI bears and elk) in its 156 minute entirety. But like real life, there are the interludes that we would rather be glossed over. The sub-plot interruptions and dramatic monotony of the latter half of the film hinder the epic crescendo the director aims for. Likewise, the Iñárritu trope of comets, spectral beings and magical realism feel unnecessary for this kind of grit that The Revenant intends. There’s a lot to commend in this flick however, especially in the method. Still, you can’t help escaping the thought that this isn’t Oscar-bait, it’s an Oscar bear-trap.