Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, based in part on the novel by Michael Punke
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter and Forrest Goodluck
Runtime: 156 minutes
Alejandro González Iñárritu is not known for making uplifting or upbeat or even arguably entertaining films. His most upbeat (in the loosest possible understanding of the word) film is probably 2014’s Best Picture winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) which maintains a level of playfulness that Iñárritu normally eschews. With his latest film, The Revenant, he returns to his dour and emotionally draining style of filmmaking but with such life and commitment, it’s impossible to deny that this is filmmaking on a grand scale. While he is no longer experimenting with Hithcockian-level single-takes, as was the visual trademark of Birdman, he is still pushing boundaries, this time it’s the boundaries of human endurance.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, an American guide to a group of fur traders who is on a hunting expedition with this group and his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). When the party is raided by another group of Native Americans, the survivors escape on their boat with their pelt take severely diminished. Glass convinces Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) to abandon the boat because of a greater chance of ambush, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) vocally protests but to no avail. A course is charted and while Glass is scouting ahead, he accidentally comes between a mother grizzly bear and her cubs and is savagely mauled by the bear. After he is found, Capt. Henry orders Glass to be put on a stretcher and brought along but when the climb up the mountain proves too difficult, Henry asks for volunteers to stay with Glass until mounted help can go back for him or he dies, whichever comes first. Hawk of course volunteers, as well as Bridger (Will Poulter) and after some monetary persuasion, Fitzgerald does too. Circumstances then lead to the death of Hawk and the abandonment of Glass to death, but Glass is strong and resolved and wills himself into better condition so he can exact revenge on his son’s murderer.
Iñárritu goes a long way to capture realism for the picture, going so far as to shoot only in natural light and have his star go through some grueling situations for real (not getting mauled by a bear, but eating raw bison liver and possibly really sleeping inside a hollowed out horse). He did this to capture, as best as possible, the real conditions people would have faced in the 1820s on the outermost border of the Louisiana Purchase. Some may question why go to such extreme lengths for this accuracy, but the reality is that when a picture such as this is made, the look and detail of the period accounts for a great deal of the believability of the situations depicted. If you can tell the actors are on a soundstage and the landscape is composited later, it robs the film of it genuineness and the actor of their struggle onscreen.
It’s a shame then, that all that work that went into making the period authentic was somewhat scuttled by Glass’ difficult but miraculous recovery. True he struggles to stand up and walk and do just about everything for much of the film, but he heals at such a rapid pace over what couldn’t be more than a month that it stretches the bounds of credulity. It doesn’t really hurt the film because of DiCaprio’s profoundly committed performance. His grunts and groans as he shows his pain in just getting mobile, let alone avoiding the pursuing Native American tribe and other perils just to find his son’s murderer are fantastic. DiCaprio barely says anything in the film, instead using his sheer physicality to command the screen. You are there with Glass not just because he’s the predominant character onscreen, but because of DiCaprio’s magnetism. His total immersion into the role of Hugh Glass is one of the key components to overcoming the seemingly rapid healing of his critical wounds.
Tom Hardy equally commands the scenes he is in, though graciously giving way when his character shouldn’t be at the fore, a quality rarely seen but displayed by Hardy routinely (most notably in Mad Max: Fury Road). When he is the center, he takes it. He’s charged with playing a wholly unpleasant character and he does it well. His moments of quiet when he admits he just wants to go back to Texas and buy some land and live quietly bring a shade of warmth to him despite his being eager to do some really terrible stuff.
Iñárritu’s direction is wonderful and is aided immeasurably by the remarkable cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, who has been steadily rising in prominence since The New World in 2005 and most notably Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Children of Men in 2006. Lubezki is unafraid to get water or fog on the lens if it means getting a good shot and Iñárritu isn’t afraid of using the shot because of these things that call attention to the camera (otherwise called ‘meta elements’). Lubezki captures the majesty of the surroundings while also making sure we see the dirt and the blood so we understand the brutality of the environment despite its beauty.
Iñárritu wisely utilizes a lot of close-ups on DiCaprio to emphasize his face and to show the deep struggle Glass is enduring to exact his revenge. He also filmed the picture in sequence, which is uncommon but here it seems to imbue DiCaprio with an ever growing intensity that he didn’t have to put on and allowed him to develop the struggle instead of having to jump around and visualize his character at a different stage every day. Iñárritu also keeps his editing tight, never lingering too long or cutting too soon. He ratchets up the emotions and intensity organically and never really lets us release it, even at the end.
The Revenant is a long film that if you are not immediately engaged in, it will not hold your attention. It is demanding and nuanced and never spells out what it’s doing or where it’s going. Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith leave out a lot of overt exposition and trust the audience enough to let them piece everything together. This isn’t a film that one watches easily and it’s also one that demands multiple viewings. This film may prove to hold DiCaprio’s finest performance, which is saying quite a lot considering the great roles he’s played over the last fourteen years. The Revenant is tough, engaging and downright fascinating to watch.