Along with Quentin Tarantio’s The Hateful Eight, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is part of a noticeable trend of blood-splattered and inescapable snows within a spate of end-of-the-year releases (one might also include Joy, however there’s no blood splattering there, minus some syrup spills, just regular ol’ snow). Iñárritu takes a hand at grueling meteorological conditions with The Revenant, a revenge tale set to a brutal and cold American frontier in the 1820s.
A ragtag company of fur trappers and hunters, led by Captain Andrew Henry (a versatile Domhnall Gleeson from Star Wars: The Force Awakens), grind their existence in the waning virginity of the wild American frontier. However, the group is no match for the conditions of the blistering weather, let alone free roaming vengeful Native Americans. Almost instantaneously, the company is attacked by a group of Arikara tribesmen who are after the Chief’s kidnapped daughter Powaqa.
The film’s opening sequence, a flurry of meticulously long takes that captures the whirlwind confusion of a violent ambush, is as captivating as it is raw. The company barely survives the fury, and the surviving members waddle across a shallow river to find the relative safety of a boat. Among their numbers include a diverse mix; Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his Native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Bridger (Will Poulter).
The Natives are a real threat to the trappers, but their woes don’t end there. The winters are brutal, with the remaining survivors attempting a meager survival in the cold as they try and find their way back and salvage what little is left from the attack. Things go from bad to worse for Hugh Glass, our protagonist, when he is mauled and nearly killed by a mother bear protecting her cubs. The scene is eviscerating and one of the most horrific, yet compelling moments, in recent cinematic history.
Fitzgerald and Bridger are expected to stay behind and wait for Glass’ inevitable death, but its clear that Fitzgerald feels that caring for and transporting his mangled and broken body would be a hindrance. Fitzgerald, a mumbling lunatic, attempts to accelerate the process by putting Glass out of his misery. Glass’ son Hawk won’t allow it, but is killed by a fatal knife attack by Fitzgerald, with Glass looking on, helpless and unable to act.
Left for dead, Glass miraculously survives, and once stable begins to traverse the cold frontier, fueled by the thought of serving a nice cold slice of revenge.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu continues to prove his power as a director, presenting a vastly different film than last year’s Best Picture-winner Birdman, yet still exhibiting his trademark visual visceral palpability. In his tale of revenge and wild animalistic America, where even bears are of little concern compared to “the most dangerous animal,” man, Iñárritu finds brutality in every nook and cranny of the American wilderness.
Once again he’s assisted by prolific cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who masterfully captures Iñárritu’s vision with photography that is at once beautiful and at other times reflective of a brutal natural world; gorgeous waters, lush treelines give way to turbulent waters and a brutal inescapable winter.
Inspired by some of the finest in the Hudson River School of artists of the 19th century, Iñárritu and Lubezki evoke a beautifully lush world of birth and giving, sharply contrasted with the anguish and death the natural world can manifest as well. More specifically, the film’s visual style recalls the works of artist Albert Bierstadt, who represented beautiful, often partially illuminated landscapes that kept specific areas within shadows, clashing both beauty and mystery, while exuding a layer of natural ferocity.
While people are ruthless in their own ways – emotionally charged creatures subject to emotions like remorse and hate – nature is brutal in its own callous and indifferent way. This idea is what Iñárritu takes and laboriously and methodically unfolds over the course of his film.
The precise cinematography and direction give way to fine performances from Leo and Hardy, the latter stealing the show from underneath Leo’s torturous and grueling performance. For all the talk and controversy involving bear attacks, it’s really these two main figures where all the real attention should be focused.
Dicaprio is excellent as always, but he’s had better roles and moments. As much as I’m a fan of his work, and one of those fans that desperately wants him to win an Oscar, it would be somewhat disheartening if it was for his performance in this film. There’s an injustice in winning for a lesser role merely because he’s done well in other works, the assumption the prize is more honorary than earned.
This isn’t an attempt to discredit Leo’s work and abilities. Dicaprio, and the production for that matter, was clearly a grueling experience – if the horror stories from set can be believed – and one that Dicaprio plays to his advantage. And our sympathies.
It’s really Tom Hardy that deserves praise and adoration as the conniving and sniveling Fitzgerald. Just when you think his character couldn’t be more despicable, he manages to top his callous apathy again and again. He’s a despicable human being with a one track mind, trudging back and salvaging their finds, with no concern or interest for anyone but himself. By his actions he’s really selling his soul rather than his pelts. This is one of Hardy’s best performances, and really needs to be seen; his real accomplishment is outshining Leo, which is no easy feat.
The Revenant is a visceral experience, both harrowing and compelling, that takes your breath away with its gorgeous cinematography and its sophisticated and brutal action scenes. The film is also thought provoking, allowing the viewer to soak up the landscapes, but giving them enough time to contemplate not just the destructiveness of humanity, but the power of the earth’s forces to destroy that which it has nurtured. The Revenant is the visually cinematic event of the year that should be experienced, if possible, on the big screen.