Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Stars: Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Lukas Haas, Paul Anderson, Brendan Fletcher, Javier Botet, Kristoffer Joner.
Oscar winning director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu follows up his acclaimed Birdman with this visually stunning but bleak, grueling and brutal revisionist western based on a true story of survival and revenge and the resilience of the human spirit. And he has given us what should be an early contender for one of the films of the year!
The Revenant is set in the harsh wilderness of the Rocky Mountains in 1823. A party of fur trappers are attacked by Indians, and try to make their way back to safety overland. During the long trek their guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio, almost unrecogniseable hidden beneath lots of facial hair) is attacked by a bear. Badly mauled he lies near death.
When the task of carrying the wounded Glass over the rough terrain proves quite an ordeal, the decision is made to leave Glass and his teenaged half breed son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) in the company of fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, intimidating and menacing as usual) and the younger more impressionable Jim Bridger (Will Poulter, from The Maze Runner, etc), while the rest of the party continue on the journey. But the ruthless Fitzgerald kills Hawk and buries Glass in a shallow grave, leaving him for dead. Glass survives and faces a number of deadly challenges as he begins a long and arduous journey across a harsh and unforgiving wilderness intent on revenge.
Unlike the almost claustrophobic Birdman, which was largely set inside a theatre, The Revenant takes place in the great outdoors and is an ambitious project that took almost twelve months to shoot on location. (Canada and Argentina doubled for the wildlands of the American west.)
Inarritu is reunited with his Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman), and his rich widescreen cinematography captures the harsh beauty of the snow covered terrain and scenery, giving us some breathtaking vistas. Lubezki uses natural lighting where possible to add to the realism of the film’s setting. Lubezki also likes working with long takes, and one of the main achievements with Birdman was making it seem as though the film was shot in one continuous take. There is an early shot here when an Indian raiding party attacks the hunters, and the camera swirls in and around the action, giving the impression of the drama unfolding in one long elaborate take, much like the precise choreography of the opening shot of Orson Welles’ classic Touch Of Evil or Robert Altman’s The Player. The virtuoso camerawork lends an immediacy to some scenes.
The terrific sound design from Jon Title, Mary Larry and Dino Dimuro makes the natural sounds of the rivers and forests somehow seem even more menacing and ominous. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s percussive score further heightens the tension and atmosphere.
The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a scout for a group of fur trappers who was left for dead after being mauled by a bear, and who managed to make his way over 200 miles of harsh territory to reach civilization. Based on the 2002 novel written by Michael Punke, The Revenant is a loose remake of the 1971 film Man In The Wilderness, which starred Richard Harris as the hunter left for dead after being attacked by a grizzly bear. The ferocious bear attack here is one of most visceral, brutal and realistic protracted sequences ever commited to film, and it’s hard to work out where the seamlessly incorporated CGI effects take over. In its themes of man’s struggle to survive the wilds of nature, The Revenant also shares a few similarities with Sydney Pollack’s 1972 western Jeremiah Johnson, which starred Robert Redford as a mountain man surviving in the wilderness.
This is fairly physical performance from Di Caprio, who suffers through a number of physically demanding ordeals, including swimming in frozen rapids and eating animal livers, and even sleeping inside a horse’s carcass at one stage. Even Di Caprio admits that this was the hardest shoot he’s ever been involved in. He looks suitably dirty, unwashed and grimy, and he has limited dialogue, much of it delivered in grunts and growls. It is a raw, almost primal performance. Hardy is perfectly cold and nasty as the irredeemable villain of the piece although much of his dialogue is almost indecipherable. Domhnall Gleeson brings a touch of dignity to his role as Captain Henry, the somewhat inexperienced leader of the expedition.
Glass’s ordeal and testing journey across an inhospitable wilderness makes for a grim, grueling, harrowing and physically draining endurance test that pushes both him and the audience to the limit. And Inarritu himself doesn’t shy away from depicting some brutal violence either. At 156 minutes it may also prove to be quite an ordeal for some in the audience. But despite its length, The Revenant is a beautiful, visceral and powerful drama that will be regarded as one of the best films of 2016.