United States. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck. 153 minutes.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu picked an unlikely project to succeed his quirky black comedy Birdman. Set in 1823 and based on a novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant tells the true tale of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who served as a tracker for Capt. Andrew Henry’s (Domhnall Gleeson) expedition of the Louisiana Purchase. Glass suffers life-threatening wounds during a bear attack; the party does not expect him to survive his injuries. The effort of moving him slows the party down too much, so Henry assigns John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to stay behind with Glass and his adopted Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Seeing this as a fool’s errand, Fitzgerald unsuccessfully attempts to murder Glass, ends up accidentally kills Hawk, and rejoins the expedition, telling a lie about Glass and his son’s fate.
Glass not only survives but recovers to the point where he can walk. Struggling against the brutal Western winter, and stalked by hostile members of the Arikara tribe (whose chief searches for his daughter, kidnapped by white fur trades), he pursues a seemingly impossible goal: to make it back to the expedition’s outpost and take revenge on Fitzgerald.
The word that repeatedly comes to mind when reflecting upon The Revenant is “awesome.” To paraphrase webcomic artist John Allison, we’ve deviated from the traditional definition of the word, and now use it to describe how we feel when our bread is toasted exactly right. That’s not what this is. This is the original meaning of “awesome”: the sense of being overwhelmed by something that is huger than us and almost entirely beyond our comprehension. In this case, that’s nature in all of its majesty and brutality, and while The Revenant evokes a time when humans seemed to be a bit tougher, we’re still puny, weak bags of meat and water in comparison to a defensive bear or a torrential blizzard.
Filmed entirely on location–none of yer green-screens or digital backlots here, mate–The Revenant oozes authenticity from every pixel. Iñárritu’s familiar hand-held cinematographical style was the source of much mirth in Birdman, but here he deploys it to a vastly different, devestating effect. By keeping the camera low to the ground, the scenery looms over the characters and the audience, and when the grizzly attacks, the shaky-cam proves essential. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to be eaten by a bear, watch The Revenant.
That sense of cinematic truth extends to the performances. I have a limited amount of respect for actors in physically-punishing roles, but DiCaprio inhabits the role of Glass in a way that goes beyond merely crawling across tundra and grunting for the entire second act of the film. To me, he actually became Hugh Glass, in a way I would have thought impossible. I’ve been watching him in movies for twenty years and while I’ve enjoyed many of his films, I’ve never seen him disappear into a role like he does here. And he’s not the only one! Hardy becomes barely recognizable for the second time this year, and it’s easy to forget The Revenant is the fourth film we’ve seen Gleeson in this year.
The Revenant is one of the most impressive cinematic achievements of 2015, not just in terms of how it was made (which is nothing to sneeze at), but the effect it has on the audience. It takes you out of the comfort of your environment and transplants you to a hostile wasteland to be part of an epic tale of human survival. Genuine movie magic, right here.