The Revenant

Iñárritu transplants the viewer to an awesome, brutal environment to witness an epic tale of human willpower and survival.

United States. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck. 153 minutes. 9/10

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.

THE REVENANT poster.

Legend

As a gangster film, it hits almost all of the gangster-film beats; it’s not a great crime drama, but it is a good one.

United Kingdom/France. Directed by Brian Helgeland, 2015. Starring Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri. 131 minutes. 7/10

So once upon a time there were these twin brothers who were gangsters in London. Their names were Reginald and Ronald Kray. Reggie was suave and charming, while Ronnie was gay and liked to beat the crap out of things. They held this weird sort of position in London’s social strata in the ’60s. I’d tell you more, but that would defeat the point of reviewing Legend, Brian Helgeland’s biopic about the Krays starring Tom Hardy as both of them.

In Godfather terms, Helgeland sees Reggie as the Michael Corleone of the outfit (the leader who always tries to pass the outfit off as legit business even though everybody knows better), with Ronnie being a sort of combination Sonny and Fredo: uncontrollably violent, completely devoid of pretension, eccentric, sensitive, and a little damaged. Reg spends six months in prison, and it’s clear he’s incapable of holding down the fort, but he’s much smarter than anyone gives him credit for. The dual role of Reggie/Ronnie is the meaty sort of beast that any actor worth his salt would love to sink his teeth into, and Hardy has his knife and fork ready before he digs in. For me, these are the leading-man performances of the year.

Indeed, Helgeland conducts Legend as an actor’s showcase in general. Old-reliables Christopher Eccleston (as Leonard “Nipper” Read, the Krays’ nemesis at Scotland Yard) and David Thewlis (as Leslie Payne, the twins’ lawyer, tolerated by Reg and despised by Ron) are just the tip of the iceberg. This film is a veritable Who’s Who of “I know that guy/chick from somewhere” Commonwealth actors: Emily Browning, Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Tara Fitzgerald, John Sessions. None of them can compete with Hardy when they scare a scene with him, but arguably their jobs as actors are to frame his performance, which they do very well. Browning, in particular, nails the “naïve gangster wife quickly worn down by the reality of the situation” trope.

It’s good that the roles are so well-cast and directed, and the Swinging London of the late ’60s so meticulously recreated, because–as I implied earlier–you’ve seen Legend before, just under different titles like Goodfellas or Casino. As a gangster film, it hits almost all of the gangster-film beats: leader of the crime family promises his wife he’ll go straight; high-ranking loose cannon wants to take a more aggressive attitude towards the competition; everything gradually turns to shit. The biggest differences are the accents and Helgeland’s affinity for jarringly anachronistic scores. (Let’s remember, this is the guy who wrote and directed A Knight’s Tale.)

Legend may not be a great crime drama but it is a good one, thanks to the design, the ensemble, and the heavenly gift of awesomeness that is Tom Hardy. It’s plenty enjoyable even if it does put style above substance.

LEGEND poster.