The Revenant is an unrelentingly violent yet beautiful descent into the icy, bleak nineteenth century American frontier of the Great Plains, when life and death was decided by both mankind’s savagery and nature’s cruel conceits.
The Revenant is dapted from Michael Punke’s supposedly fact-based 2002 historical novel about legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, together with his half-Pawnee teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), is leading a group of fur trappers for Captain Andrew Henry (the increasingly familiar face of Domnhall Gleeson) when they are brutally attacked by a Ree (Arikara tribe) hunting party.
As a handful of surviving fur trappers are making their escape, Glass, the group’s only hope of survival, is attacked and mortally wounded by a bear. Captain Henry asks for two men to stay behind with Hawk so that they can give Glass a dignified burial when he dies. Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) both volunteer, but Fitzgerald’s fear and greed make him abandon Glass barely alive and half-buried.
But Glass survives, clawing his way out of his grave and crawling along the icy ground to begin his tortuous journey back to civilisation, where he can find Fitzgerald and teach him how to properly bury a man.
We have to say that this film caused some conflict here at the Film Rave – one side of the room loved it, but the other side didn’t, and that divide seems to be the consensus of the critics. So let’s start with the side of the room that loved it.
The Revenant’s opening sequence of the Ree attack told us we were in for something visually exceptional. Filmed using only natural light on the beautiful unspoiled lands of Canada and Argentina, director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Birdman) wastes no time in asserting both his presence and his intentions with a spellbinding sequence of bewitching beauty and startling savagery that instantly creates an astonishing visceral experience.
Iñárritu floats the camera along to pursue one of the fur trappers who is desperate to escape the attacking Ree, following him until an arrow tears through his flesh and he thuds to the ground dead. The camera instantly switches to his killer until he’s also killed, and so forth, gliding through the chaos in a seamless take that at one point even plunges beneath an icy river to witness a man drowning.
Never has a film done such an astonishing job of immediately capturing the harshness and cruelty of nineteenth century frontier life in such realistic detail.
This kind of technical directing seems almost mechanised, and it jolted us out of the story as we noticed the cogs working behind the curtain. Yet we were still powerless to do nothing except admire the shear beauty and realism presented to us on the screen – never has a film (in our experience) done such an astonishing job of immediately capturing the harshness and cruelty of nineteenth century frontier life in such realistic detail.
And this visceral sense of reality is continued in the following bear attack, in which Glass is repeatedly mauled by a grizzly protecting her cubs, tearing open his back and torso in a sustained and unflinching look at nature’s savagery. Critics have made much of this scene, comparing the bear’s attack to a rape, but when we watched it we thought that comment was pretty dumb, so we’re not going there…
Tom Hardy has quickly established a back-catalogue of mumbling, inaudible characters, and he brings that same psychology to The Revenant, swaying from entertainingly odd to unintelligible loony tunes. Yet he still manages to craft a character we despise, aligning us with Glass’s emotions and his overall goal of revenge. Comparing Hardy’s performance to that of DiCaprio’s is clearly unfair as the latter spends most of the movie unable to do little more than crawl and grunt, even though few actors can deliver such emotion with a single facial expression as DiCaprio can. Yet Hardy steals almost every scene with his dark and riveting performance of Fitzgerald, a man who calculates his every move, making him more savage than the brutal nature of the landscape that surrounds him.
In fact, all of the performances stand out: Gleeson manages to communicate the tragic sadness of a leader who lacks the brutal instinct to survive in such a harsh environment, whilst Poulter finally gets a chance to show his emotional range as the humanist so out of place amongst all the savagery.
So what about the side of the room that didn’t like the film?
The main point of contention was the story’s plausibility – many just didn’t believe that a human being could survive the injuries that Glass endured. We just couldn’t help but wonder about infection.
It’s obvious that Iñárritu has taken a huge wedge of artistic licence in dramatising the ‘truth’ of Glass’s exploits, but some of the things he was forced to do to survive just didn’t ring true. At one point he finds a small cave on the riverbank in which to hide, but when the Ree finally catch up with him, he’s forced to abandon it and set himself afloat in the turbulent icy river, the Ree shooting arrows at him from rocky outcrops.
And these types of implausibilities litter the narrative, all the time tugging us out of the story and forcing us to question its reality.
Glass allows the current to help him escape, tumbling through waterfall after waterfall to eventually, at dusk and clearly several hours later, emerge from the river to stand on the snow-covered banks without a single shiver attacking his body. Did hypothermia not exist in that century? And these types of implausibilities litter the narrative, all the time tugging us out of the story and forcing us to question its reality.
But it’s only a film! we hear you cry. Yes, but it’s a film that’s shown with the utmost reality, which raises an interesting point. These implausible narrative events seem to be in direct conflict with the passion and hard work that has clearly gone into creating such a realistic visual representation of the world and its characters. Is Iñárritu trying to make some kind of point by once again wrangling with the question of reality versus illusion, as he did in his previous project, Birdman? Maybe? Yet, undermining this is the final act conclusion, which highlights a huge thematic problem – this brutal survivalist story attempts to say something about the clash between humanity, nature and God, with its impressionistic layers of visual metaphors and motifs (although the message does seem muddled), but has nothing new to say about its main theme of revenge. In fact, the two elements seem to clash, feeling out of place when combined within the same narrative.
And lastly… Will DiCaprio finally lift his first Oscar?
All the buzz-talk suggests it’s a big yes, but we’re not that sure he will. Why?
Well, as we mentioned earlier, DiCaprio spends at least two thirds of the film unable to talk, firstly because of his injuries and then, when the poor tike’s feeling a little better, because he trudges through the wilderness alone. Aside from the brief action sequences at the beginning and in the final act conclusion, he’s left to churn out all the facial expressions and grunts of pain he has in his acting locker, and as good as they are, this kind of soup rarely allows for a broad range of good acting. This helps Hardy to steal the show, but as good as he is, his reduced time on screen means he can be nothing more than supporting actor.
So we’ll call it right here right now: if DiCaprio does get the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, it will be out of a sense of sympathy rather than entitlement, because, quite honestly, there are much better leading performances out there.