Brutal. Bloody. Brilliant.
The Revenant is Alejandro Iñárritu’s follow-up to last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman. Eschewing the modern familial conflict and meta commentary of Birdman, The Revenant is a revenge tale set in the 1820’s American frontier. Yet stating that this film is a “revenge tale” is reductive. It is one man’s crucible of pain which is embodied through different entities, the chief of which being stark representations of both man and nature.
The story begins with a fur trading expedition gone awry. After an attack by a group of Ree Native Americans leaves explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his party down thirty men, Glass and company face a difficult decision: bury their haul of hides and make for the nearest fort or take the hides and risk being accosted once more by the pursuing Ree. Captain Andrew Henry (Dohmnall Gleeson) defers to Glass given his wealth of experience; Glass chooses to leave the hides in hopes of expediting their return. All agree with his decision save for a single dissenter named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who is unhappy that a season of hardship may have been for nothing. During their return, Glass encounters a bear which attacks him. Though he survives the encounter, he’s gravely injured and transporting him to the fort in his current state would be impossible. Fitzgerald offers to stay (for a monetary sum) and guard him along with Glass’ half-Pawnee son, Hawk, until people can be sent to retrieve them. The area, however, is swarming with Ree and Fitzgerald is not a patient man. When Hawk interrupts his attempt at smothering Glass, Fitzgerald stabs Glass’ son to death in front of him, drags Glass into a ditch, and leaves him for dead.
But he doesn’t die. True to the film’s namesake, Glass claws his way out of his shallow grave and embarks upon a quest for vengeance that pits him against an unforgiving landscape and even more unforgiving people. There is something immediately primal about the story of a man robbed of purpose, reduced to a single, gnawing need. From the moment Glass begins crawling through the dirt, blood still leaking from his many wounds, spittle dribbling down his bearded chin, you know you’re in for a cinematic experience unlike any other. Throughout his journey, Glass experiences a rebirth fueled by his wrath, mirroring the evolution of man as he first crawls, then shambles, and finally walks upright, fording every challenge that the world can throw at him with gritted teeth and an animalistic snarl. Every moment is weighed with dread and, to its credit, the urgency of Glass’ quest is never lost and every scene ups the ante, showing just how far Glass is willing to go in order to kill John Fitzgerald.
Though The Revenant confounds expectation a few times, there is a subtle beauty to its overall simplicity and an earnestness in its characters and the motifs they represent. The Bear is a manifestation of nature; a primal force with which man must contend. John Fitzgerald represents the Darwinian mindset of a survivor, imbued with the sort of Manifest Destiny, capitalistic urges that would come to shape the future of the United States. Glass, meanwhile, straddles the line between worlds that are incapable of reconciling. The embodiment of this meeting is Glass’ son, Hawk, whose fate is telling of the future relationship between the Native Peoples of America and those who sought to bring “western civilization” to them. The irreconcilable manner of Glass and Fitzgerald’s antagonism, therefore, carries weight both personal and symbolic, but never are the characters reduced to mere archetypes. There is an understandable reason for Fitzgerald’s nihilism, while never undermining the horror of his actions. Glass’ past further reinforces his position as a man damned by the circumstances of the time, love having cemented his future pain. The mélange of ugliness and violence that springs from the meeting of these characters sets the stage for The Revenant’s grand and powerful finale, which commentates on cyclical violence and the soul-sucking nature of vengeance.
Much has been said of the grueling nature of The Revenant’s shoot, but the result is a film that is beautifully acted and technically marvelous. Leonardo “Give Me a Damn Oscar” DiCaprio is more impressive than ever, imbuing Hugh Glass with a quiet power and raw physicality. His devolution and return to humanity is remarkable to behold and DiCaprio’s full-bodied commitment to the performance is so complete that it is impossible to look away. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy is just as impressive as Glass’ nemesis, John Fitzgerald. Hardy lends a no-nonsense practicality to Fitzgerald, whose stark worldview offers a scant bit of humor to an otherwise overwhelmingly bleak film. Rounding out the cast is Domhnall Gleeson (who has had a slew of sterling films recently), whose character of Captain Andrew Henry can almost be viewed as the hero of the piece. Henry’s dedication to doing the right thing is commendable, but there is a certain naiveté that comes along with it; Gleeson does admirable work in making Henry practical, yet honorable, offering a nice counterpoint to the extremity represented in both Glass and Fitzgerald.
Technically, the film is as beautiful as Birdman, but in a completely different setting. Where that film found beauty in everyday, modern life, The Revenant finds beauty in nature and contrasts that beauty with the constant threat of violence; an awe-inspiring set of clouds soon brings a scourging blizzard; a peaceful forest gives way to a savage bear attack; a painterly dawn signals a brutal raid. Whether photographing naturalistic beauty or brutal violence, The Revenant is stunning. Sporting the same floating camera that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has used in recent films such as Tree of Life and Birdman, the viewer is placed directly into the action, whipping left and right during the bear attack, maneuvering their way through swaying trees as Glass fords knee-high snow, and ducking under whizzing arrows during a Ree raid; its unpredictable and somehow always picturesque. The orchestration of such complex scenes and their perfect execution can be attributed to both Lubezki and Iñárritu, whose filmmaking prowess continues to astound. The bear attack alone is a scene worthy of study, fashioned to appear as a single, uninterrupted take that is as thrilling as it is cringe-inducing, displaying the sort of unpredictability that one would think could only be found in real life. The stunning visuals are supported by an equally stunning and atmospheric score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner, and Carsten Nicolai. Featuring rambling, dissonant percussion as well as ambient tones and emotional orchestral elements, it provides a fitting auditory experience that enhances the bleakness of Glass’ quest as well as reinforcing the harsh beauty of the wilderness.
What more can be said about The Revenant? It’s a story about revenge; about a tumultuous time where humans battled nature as much as they battled each other; about the cyclical nature of violence and the high cost of its pursuit. In all respects, it is an unflinching portrait of survival, populated by actors who embody the characters on screen, filmed by a modern master of cinema and his equally talented cinematographer. Overall, it is a brilliant and unforgettable experience that demands to be seen.