The Revenant, 2015.
Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Paul Anderson, Lukas Haas, Brendan Fletcher, Forrest Goodluck, and Grace Dove.
In the 1820s, a frontiersman, Hugh Glass, sets out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead after a bear mauling.
Production of The Revenant began a long time ago (possibly in a galaxy far, far away) in August of 2001, constantly getting shuffled between various different producers, writers, and directors. At one point acclaimed Korean auteur Chan-wook Park was set to direct with Samuel L. Jackson in the leading role, which would have certainly made for an intriguing movie. This isn’t meant to be a crash course in the history of getting the project off the ground, but some factual evidence that should hopefully drive home a point that the working conditions on-set of The Revenant were horrifically miserable. It really did take a group of artists beyond strongly dedicated to the material to bring this historical and astonishing tale of betrayal and survival to life.
For starters, The Revenant was filmed using all natural lighting, or to put it in simpler terms, had absolutely no electricity or special effects to manipulate the weather. Shot on location in Canada, the working conditions were intentionally anything but ideal, often leaving actors suffering for their art in below 0° temperatures. Every drop of snow, visible air from taking a breath, and any other substance that catches a character’s body is the real deal. The upside though are a plethora of committed performances in touch with the thoughts and mindset of their historical counterparts as they face complex moral quandaries.
Of course, all of this paves the way for Leonardo DiCaprio (probably the only man crazy and desperate enough for an Oscar to say yes to this madness) to throw up yet another transfixing performance, this time portraying real-life 1820s explorer Hugh Glass. This time though it’s more the extremities of Leo’s method acting that is most deserving of praise. DiCaprio is a vegetarian in real life, but that doesn’t stop him from biting and tearing through raw bison liver in order to keep his body replete. His reactions to the meal are as authentic as can possibly be, caught with the cameras rolling, but it’s not the only stunt from the passionate performer that amps up the immersion factor by tenfold.
Don’t mistake this for the performance as being nothing more than DiCaprio going out of his way to convince us he’s insane though, because even with minimal dialogue, the actor does give a subdued and restrained turn (definitely something different from his usual antics of raising his voice for powerfully prolonged speeches that knock your socks off) in favor of overblown theatrics. Much of the second act follows DiCaprio crawling through the wilderness, starting fires, hunting fish to eat alive, and generally traversing a beautiful landscape despite brutal injuries from a grizzly bear attack, that by all rights should have killed him. It’s a heavily physical role more interested in straining his body and forcing him to tell a story with actions over words.
The overarching theme of the film dictates the notion of continuously fighting so long as one can breathe. Hugh Glass isn’t just fueled by the prospect of enduring this arduous journey back to civilization though, but rather acting out revenge on those that left him for dead immorally and murdered his son. We are watching a man that has absolutely nothing left to push forward for, which by all accounts transcends him into the most dangerous man in the world.
It goes without saying that this is fascinating to watch, as DiCaprio gives the performance that has the highest chance of finally nabbing him the Oscar for Best Actor than any other one to date. Even more surprising is that all of this comes from a role that contains less than 15 lines of English-speaking dialect, whereas the other bits of dialogue are spoken in a Native American language that the artist actually went through the trouble of learning for real. Yeah, this portrayal of Hugh Glass is off the charts and something that needs to be seen to be believed.
Tom Hardy is no slouch in his role either, playing the villainous confidant that commits some dastardly deeds towards the fellow explorer. As convincing and downright nasty the character of John Fitzgerald is though, the writing does come across stereotypical and cliché for an antagonist. There are moments in the first half of the film where we are allowed to feel a slight sense of empathy for his life situation, but his personality all quickly evaporates into the form of a typical bad guy that you can’t wait to see meet a violent fate.
There are some other supporting players in the fray here, most notably Will Poulter as Jim Bridger, a friend of Hugh Glass caught in the unfortunate situation of being forced into joining Fitzgerald after the betrayal. Bridger has a moral compass and is easy to like, but most importantly is compelling to watch in his conflicted state of mind. Domnhall Gleeson also plays an idealistic commander of sorts, unhappy with the fact that the crew must leave Hugh behind.
Circling this beefy narrative is a subplot regarding a high-ranking native of the land in search of his daughter, whom he believes to be kidnapped by two white men. And no, The Revenant doesn’t steamroll in the direction of Hugh Glass predictably joining up with his enemies to take on the members of his expedition crew that wrongfully ditched him to perish. Instead, it is a branching narrative woven into the grander scheme of the plot rather gracefully, especially towards the back end of the film. There’s a fantastic juxtaposition between fathers looking out for their offspring, whether alive or dead.
With that said, the story is undoubtedly the only weak aspect of The Revenant, playing out as your basic, gritty revenge story. There is no towing the line of good and evil for the major players involved, but simply good versus bad. If you want to put it into really awesome terms: Leonardo DiCaprio vs Tom Hardy. It isn’t just their excellent Oscar worthy performances that are elevating the conventional structure into something remarkable (alongside the insane filming conditions and aesthetic approach), but also some outstanding cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity , and his previous collaboration with Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman), who has to be a lock to win another one of those golden statues.
Large frontiers full of chaotic destruction don’t really pop out as ideal shooting locations for the director of photography’s tried-and-true tracking shot methods, but the extended battle sequences on display here are wholly immersive and splendid to watch, provided your stomach is strong enough to bask in the barbaric bloodbaths. So many poignant moments are lingered on for minutes at a time to maximize immersion and heighten the sensibilities of danger; for example, the highly promoted grizzly bear mauling is a brutal, one-take scene lasting nearly five minutes. The Revenant is a gory, graphic vengeance flick that chooses not to shy away from assaulting you with realistic violence, but it’s for the best considering that by the end of the climactic final showdown, it finally settles in that you have just experienced an epic journey of survival driven by lustful vengeance.
At a bloated length of 156 minutes, The Revenant actually doesn’t even feel very long. There comes a point during the middle where repetitiveness settles in from Hugh Glass acting out impressive yet disgusting feats of wilderness survival, but the very second it does, the picture jumps into the third act, quickly building forward plot momentum and ending on one hell of a high note.
The Revenant has been described unanimously from everyone involved in the production process as the hardest project they have ever taken on in their careers, and I believe it. Conventional story aside, the execution is out-of-this-world, bursting with top-notch Oscar worthy performances, absolutely beautiful cinematography, and fearless direction, along with unparalleled perseverance and dedication from every artist involved. It’s a triumph of the human spirit’s will to keep fighting in the face of insurmountable odds, with engrossing elements of revenge.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook