The Revenant, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman, is many things: a brutal revenge tale, a quest for justice, an allegorical frontier survival story. As grim and visceral and punishing to watch as the film is, another team up between Inarritu and celebrated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s a stunning sight to behold. Full of dedicated, ho-holds-barred performances, especially from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, The Revenant is a grueling, demanding, frontier Apocalypse Now.
Loosely inspired by real events, in the 1820s, a frontiersman named Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) guides a cadre of fur trappers through the snow-covered wilderness, along with his half-Native son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). After being mauled by a bear, Glass is buried alive and left for dead, his son murdered. When he digs his way out of the frozen ground, he’s something not quite dead, not quite alive, and embarks on a harrowing Heart of Darkness style mission for vengeance against the man responsible, Hardy’s John Fitzgerald.
DiCaprio holds nothing back. Stories about the brutal conditions during production, which filmed outdoors in the middle of the Canadian winter, and the great lengths he went to—from eating raw meat to coming perilously close to frostbite—have circulated, and while it’s easy to say it was all worth it from the comfort of a movie theater, it certainly is an unflinching, unforgettable performance. He’s raw and feral, barely able to speak for most of the movie, communicating through a series of guttural grunts, groans, and cries. An incredibly physical feat, he’s a wounded animal dragging his broken body and limping his way through the wilderness.
Though DiCaprio is the centerpiece of The Revenant, Hardy is the unsung hero. Fitzgerald may be a coward, a racist, a criminal on the run, and a bully, but the Mad Max: Fury Road star makes all of these failings seem very human, uncomfortably so in most cases. A vicious goon who only cares about his own survival, he also provides what little grim, gallows humor the film possess. A few other strong turns—notably from Domhnall Gleeson as the captain of the trapping expedition, and Will Poulter as the young innocent trying to not to lose himself in the literal and metaphorical wilds—prop up the picture, but this is truly DiCaprio and Hardy’s show.
As you expect from a tag team of Inarritu and Lubezki, The Revenant is the most gorgeous, or at least gorgeously filmed—the visuals are often absolutely ruthless—movie of the year. Shot almost exclusively from low angles, you always have the sensation of looking up at the character, their faces framed by the expansive sky, giving scenes the feel of a hallucinatory fever dream. Wide, sweeping shots where the camera continually roves showcase the natural beauty of the landscape, and these are juxtaposed with extreme close ups on the characters faces that provides a bracing intimacy, letting their expressions do the work that the sparse words of the script can’t do.
Heavy with symbolic imagery—from a striking pyramid of animal skulls, to a corpse dangling from a tree and twisting in the wind, to the stark, barren backwoods environment—and interspersed with dreamy flashbacks, The Revenant has the feel of dark fantasy, of nightmare. What else can you call a gauzy, pensive film with children running while on fire in slow motion, scalping, and a naked man hollowing out a horse and climbing in for warmth, Luke Skywalker style?
Though women are mentioned from time to time—Gleeson’s character talks about his wife back at home, and we see Glass’s dead wife in flashbacks—this is a manly movie full of men, and there’s nothing more than a cursory female presence. In fact, those who show up are only there to be brutalized and abused: you see a few women in scenes at a frontier fort, though they are sexual favors passed around by the men; and Glass’s wife exists primarily to be killed, an event that drives and haunts him.
The biggest misstep of The Revenant falls in this realm. There’s a sporadic subplot interspersed with the main narrative that follows a Native tribe as they hack and slash their way through various groups of interlopers overrunning what was once their land, searching for his kidnapped daughter of their leader. When she does ultimately show up, the daughter only exists to be raped by a trapper in a heavy-handed, “Who are the real savages?” moment, a point that has been made abundantly clear in much more eloquent, subtle fashion. It’s a clumsy, ill-conceived lapse that never pays off and is the biggest detriment to the larger pace and structure.
Clocking in at 156-minutes-long, The Revenant pummels you visually, emotionally, and on a gut level, and I mean that in the best possible way. Gorgeous, polished, and intricately constructed, at the same time the film is wholly raw, jagged, and visceral. It’s an endurance test to be sure, but one that pays off and is well worth the wear and tear. [Grade: A]