Once in a blue moon, a film comes along that manages simultaneously to make you long for the beauty of nature and remind you why mankind fled from it in the first place. After the whimsical departure that was last year’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), director Alejandro González Iñárritu returns to somber ground in
The Revenant. Back again with a literal vengeance, this time.
The Revenant in a Nutshell
The plot originates and severely deviates from Michael Punke’s novel of the same name. (Both based themselves on the true story of Hugh Glass.) A tracker for hire, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets severely mauled in a bear attack during a fur peddling expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). The group tends to his injuries and attempts to move him back to the nearest outpost. Carrying him proves difficult, however, because of the rough terrain, the harsh winter climate and a tribe of violent Arikara Native Americans following them.
Captain Henry offers bonuses for anyone to stay behind and care for Glass. Team members John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Hugh’s mixed-race Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) accept the deal. Fitzgerald, equal parts self-centered and mentally unstable, takes matters into his own hands. After the expedition leaves, he attempts to kill Glass but stabs Hawk instead, his father unable to defend him. He then tricks Bridger to leave Glass behind in a shallow grave by lying about the Arikara being nearby. The rest of the film deals with how Glass, left for dead, fixes himself up and survives the perils of the frozen wilderness in pursuit of the one goal he has remaining: revenge (uppercase letters, exclamation point).
Braving the Elements
It’s all pretty straightforward. Revenge tales are quite common, after all. The Reborn Avenger schtick itself is a trope both effective and overused in all storytelling mediums. (Cinema itself is chock full of examples: I Spit on Your Grave, The Wraith, The Crow, Payback, The Punisher, the Kill Bill features… the list goes on.) The Hugh Glass incident in particular has birthed several adaptations. 1971’s Man in the Wilderness had Richard Harris playing a Glass-type character.
What makes this one special is its in-your-face immediacy. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is hauntingly beautiful when it needs be. Like his Oscar-winning work in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, it places the audience smack in the middle of the action when things heat up using seemingly uninterrupted closeup shots of visceral virtuosity. His and Iñárritu’s untamed 19th-century American wilderness is a character onto itself: gorgeous, graceful and unforgiving. (Parts of Canada, the U.S. and Argentina were used for filming.)
Speaking of characters, all the performers here are in top form, from Hardy and Gleeson to newcomer Arthur RedCloud. The Native American actor plays a Pawnee passerby that feeds Glass with bison meat and Zen advice.
Director Iñárritu has a long proven track record in drama (Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams). Here he makes the argument that he could also carry an epic action extravaganza or even a fantasy/superhero franchise. Three years back you would’ve never thought that, of the Mexican filmmaking triumvirate comprised by Iñárritu, Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak, Pan’s Labyrinth), del Toro would be the one currently slacking. He isn’t, of course. His friends are just gaining up on him!
The Leo Show
However, for all the haunting beauty and cruelty on display, The Revenant would be little more than a well-crafted technical exercise were it not for Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the lead. It’s well known how energetic a performer he is by default. In contrast, he spends one-third of the film’s running time lying down and nearly half of it unable to speak. These impediments, together with the harsh real-life conditions on location, forced Leonardo to pull from a new bag of acting tricks I doubt even he imagined he possessed.
His interpretation of Hugh Glass is at the same time the most toned-down and intense one of his whole career. His hindered body language communicates pain both physical and spiritual. The audience feels his loss, his powerlessness. His Glass wants Fitzgerald to pay, but first he will earn his right to revenge by surviving. DiCaprio has played adult roles for years, but this is the first one that shows him as mature.
Why He Deserves “It”
The next two paragraphs may be skipped if you don’t care about awards season hype.
DiCaprio has proven worthy of recognition ever since his Academy Award nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He was nominated as well as passed over three more times—for The Aviator, Blood Diamond and The Wolf of Wall Street—and is up in the running again for The Revenant. [The movie saw a limited release in December for Oscar and Golden Globe eligibility, managing to snag three Globe wins including one for Leo.]
Its a pet peeve shared by all longtime fans of the man that he basically became Oscar’s Susan Lucci. (Yes, that makes two Lucci references in a row!) Maybe it was his pretty-boy looks that made AMPAS voters shun him. Perhaps it was jealousy for the fact that he made acting look easy. John Leguizamo admitted as much one time while describing his Romeo + Juliet co-star (whom he called a “little blond, happy, golden-boy [EXPLETIVE]”). Still, even Lucci broke her curse and eventually won an Emmy. To admit DiCaprio deserved an Oscar for his previous body of work is redundant; to say he deserves one for The Revenant is an understatement. [End of rant.]
Regardless of all the accolades it has received or will get this awards season, The Revenant is, above all else, a great film. It showcases the most visceral “punishment” a Hollywood actor has endured on-screen since Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ, as well as so many great uses of the same fur pelt that the bear should get a nod in the Costume Design category (kudos to my wife for both brilliant statements).
Jokes aside, The Revenant an intense and rewarding experience. Like the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, demonstrates how far filmmaking can go with selective use of CGI and a bit of brilliant creative madness at the helm. On a personal note to my close acquaintances, the movie has made me unavailable for camping trips in the immediate future. Please plan your vacations accordingly.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Twice while watching The Revenant I thought about Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo character. I invite you to comment and try to guess which two moments made me do that and the specific Rambo film(s) I believe each scene is referencing.
Now showing only in theaters.
Movie title: The Revenant
Movie description: Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant is a haunting, in-your-face adventure that showcases Leonardo DiCaprio's best career performance so far.
Date published: 2016-01-28
Director(s): Alejandro González Iñárritu
Actor(s): Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck
Genre: Drama, Adventure