The Revenant (2016) Review
Writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mark L. Smith, Michael Punke (novel)
Certificate: 15 Running Time: 2hr 36 Mins
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck
Iñárritu’s work has captured the imagination ever since the Mexican’s directorial debut in the inter-connected brilliance of Amores Perros (2000). Interlocking a chain of seemingly unrelated stories together to form a revelatory finale continued in the gritty drug thriller 21 Grams (2003) and star-studded desert drama Babel (2006). The haunting tale of Uxbal (Javier Bardem) left an indefinite mental scar in the intoxicating Biutiful (2010). Last year’s Academy award winning comic drama, Birdman, came somewhat out of left field and represented a departure from the harsh tonality of previous work. While it earned Iñárritu mainstream recognition and entered into my top picks of 2015, it’s my least favourite entry in the auteur’s filmography testament to how high the bar has been set. It’s safe to say The Revenant has outshone those before it.
It was only fitting that it took five arduous attempts to finally see The Revenant. The more exciting episodes involved a frantic phone call summoning me across London during the opening hour and a trek to an obscure cinema while on holiday in the freezing Berlin, only to be told in no uncertain terms that it was a German language screening. Upon reflection, the sheer irony of the struggle is almost a befitting tribute to the grand spectacle that awaited.
One who has returned, as if from the dead.
The Revenant is a masterpiece. It’s an exasperating and entirely immersive cinematic experience that champions the aeonian strength of the human spirit. A savage tale of redemption fuelled by the misty embers of grief and driven by the thirst of revenge. The power of a father’s love transcends the desire of carnal blood-lust, the emotional arc charges the narrative with a recondite magnetism. It’s an epic journey that rides on waves of melancholia and retribution that ultimately arrives at a spiritual destination. It’s a work of stark contrast as cowardice wrestles with courage and the wondrous yet unforgiving beauty of nature clashes with animal instinct.
The grandest juxtaposition is that of Emmanuel Lubezki’s masterful cinematography and the primal performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. ‘Chivo’ enriches the film with a sublime visual aesthetic while DiCaprio’s luminary turn captures an unprecedented struggle for survival. The vicious grisly bear attack is a remarkable depiction of a beast’s ravenous hunting regime, it’s a terrifying episode and one of the first signs of nature’s unpredictability. Left for dead and buried alive writhing in pain, Glass miraculously survives and lives off the land as he wanders through harsh plains of the Missouri. Wounded and desperately seeking food and shelter, he is a man with nothing more to lose. At times, he resembles a lumbering animal as he eats raw bison and guts the carcass of a horse for survival. Despite his degradation at the hands of Fitzgerald, he keeps grasp of his humanity by coming to the aid of a damsel in distress and is driven onward by the haunting specters of his deceased wife and son. It’s a frightening thought that a man resembling this depiction actually existed back in 1823.
The picturesque backdrop and wide ranging shots of nature serves a constant reminder of Glass’ insignificance in the grand scheme of existence. Insistence to shoot exclusively with natural light coupled with the selection of sublime locations in Canada and southern tip of Argentina have created a spectacular brand of visual storytelling inspired by Lubezki’s collaborative efforts with Terrence Malick; there are vibes of The New World (2005), To The Wonder (2012) and the seminal magnum opus The Tree of Life (2011).
The imprint of mankind’s nimiety remains visible as the expansion of the fur trade and barbaric treatment of the Arikara tribe. John Fitzgerald’s self-interest and racial ignorance epitomises a mentality that plundered the Pawnee community. Hardy is superb as the villainous Fitzgerald whose glassy eyes are like remorseless pools of emptiness. The native Indians form part of a terrific ensemble cast of many non professional actors, it’s the role of another man who has lost everything (Hicuk) that is the most poignant. The role of Bridger, played by the impressive Will Poulter, as the conscientious and pitiful companion to Fitzgerald is brilliantly written. He offers a constant reminder of the cowardice displays towards Glass and haunts Fitzgerald upon their retreat back to the camp. The climactic episode is steeped is a visceral melee. It’s a phenomenal sensorial experience where every stab pierces and every drop of blood takes it toll. It isn’t for the faint of heart and rightly pulls no punches in its graphic violence. Not since 12 Years A Slave (2013) have I left the theatre feeling as physically and emotionally shattered. It really is something to savour.
The struggles to get the film made have been well documented. Issues with locations due to the impact of global warming led to significant delays and cost implications. It’s a piece of film that has taken every last gasp of belief and perseverance to get made. The result is a cinematic landmark that will deservedly be acknowledged come the Academy ceremony. It has to be said that it is a crying shame for both The Revenant and DiCaprio that the awards buzz has been fixated on the actor’s chances of winning his first award. It truly is so much more than that.
n.b. I do not own any of the copyright of the photos above (copyright 20th century fox)