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THE REVENANT (2015) review

December 24, 2015

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written by: Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu
produced by: Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, David Kanter, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mary Parent, James W. Skotchdopole & Keith Redmon
directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
rated: R (for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity)
runtime: 156 min.
U.S. release date: December 25, 2015 (limited) and January 8, 2016 (wide)

 

Most of the time I find myself entering a screening of an eagerly awaited movie with my expectations dialed to a certain degree. It’s a necessary approach since expectations are rarely met or surpassed. Then comes “The Revenant”, the latest film from Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñárritu (“Birdman” and “Babel”). This magnificent cinematic experience not only met my expectations of a perilous, immersive and exhausting “man vs. harsh wilderness” (among other themes explored), but also surpassed my expectations by delivering a visually stunning film that acknowledges the beauty of nature while exposing the violence of desperate and despicable men fueled by fear, grief and greed.

Set in the North American wilderness of 1823, the story follows explorer and tracker, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who along with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forest Goodluck) has been hired to tag along with a pack of fur trappers led by Major Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleason) of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, out of Fort Kiowa in South Dakota near the Missouri River. The other frontiersman in the party – who had been whittled down to a small pack after a surprise Pawnee raid – are racist criminal, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), an earnest teenage scout. The focus is on Glass once he barely survives a horrifying attack by a grizzly bear in the woods and is left for dead in a shallow grave after Fitzgerald kills his son. Fueled by anger and revenge, Glass manages to survive the treacherous elements and one perilous situation after another as his body and mind slowly heal.  

 

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“The Revenant” is brutal yet an undeniably beautiful film. There will be some who just can’t take watching DiCaprio’s Glass go through all that he endures. I found it exhausting and quite amazing. Even more amazing is that this actually happened. The screenplay by Alejandro G. Inaritu and Mark L. Smith is based on the Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same, which covered the outdoor adventures of tracker Hugh Glass, specifically his ordeal after getting mauled by a grizzly.

It’s in the tradition of the wintry survival films of the 70s, like “The Mountain Men” and “Man in the Wilderness” and also reminded me of Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” from 2011. It’s a genre that’s not for everyone, especially for those with a delicate disposition, who may feel unnerved at the sight of a raw bison liver being devoured or a horse being disembowled like a tauntaun from “The Empire Strikes Back“. Indeed, some die-hard Leonardo fans will be put through the ringer.

It seems that Glass’ son, Hawk was added to the screenplay for dramatic effect with the act of his death at the hands of Hardy’s Fitzgerald amplified the tension of the film, which is how the film differs from the actual story. It’s understandable and it matters not. I assume that most viewers will be like myself and come to “The Revenant” unaware of the details of the lives of these frontiersmen. The look of the film and its performances stand out over its revenge tale, with Iñárritu’s immersive Malick-like visuals immediately winning me over.

“The Revenant” opens with a serene moment where we follow Glass and his son as they track and kill a moose in the woods along the Missouri River. It’s a scene that’s suddenly interrupted by the aforementioned Pawnee attack, captured with swirling long-takes from award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (“Gravity” and “Birdman”) that is reminiscent of the opening of “Saving Private Ryan” with its whizzing arrows and bloody death at every turn. It’s insane how steady and smooth the camera is as we watch these trappers try to save their pelts and escape to their boat.  

 

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Iñárritu and Lubezki filmed in twelve different locations in British Columbia, United States and southern Argentina using natural light. There are shots of blinding sunlight and there are night scenes that are solely lit by either moonlight or firelight. Some CGI is used, especially during the relentless grizzly attack, but Lubezki primarily allows the harrowing inhospitable locations to speak for themselves. The cinematographer doesn’t miss a detail, whether its DiCaprio crawling through the earth all blood-soaked and snot-faced or his character being tossed around in freezing white rapids, Lubezki is up close, capturing every anguished and exhausted expression of these actors.

Most of the performances in “The Revenant” are silent, especially once DiCaprio is on his solo trek back to the Fort. It’s an understandable approach that plays to the actor’s strengths. His impenetrable gaze and energy is tremendous, at times turning Glass into a wounded animal – which is literally what he is both physically and emotionally. It’s definitely a physical performance and a demanding one at that, but DiCaprio’s relentless intensity is in every scene, whether he’s gazing into a fire or riding on a galloping horse. If this is finally the role which earns him an Oscar, it will certainly be well-deserved. It’s truly is tremendous work from the actor.

Now, some will groan at Hardy’s work here, dismissing it as yet another part for the actor to mumble and scowl, but such mannerisms are fitting for the malicious Fitzgerald. I have no idea what the real-life Fitzgerald was actually like, but Hardy’s cold-hearted portrayal gives the role an appropriate antagonist for Glass. Both actors embody their characters with a good amount of stubbornness and resilience that becomes a payoff during the inevitable results violent showdown. Poulter and Gleason are also great in their respective roles. These are two actors who’ve continued to deliver great work and here they are equally as committed as DiCaprio and Hardy.

Poulter, as the young Jim Bridger is like a gateway character for the audience, easy to connect with and feel for. Gleason, who closes out a ridiculously great year at the movies with this role, plays a confident and stalwart character that is interesting to watch.

My body ached after my first viewing of “The Revenant”. All those twisted limbs and ripped, wounded flesh wears a viewer down. Upon my second viewing, I could prepare myself, knowing what I was in store for during it’s over two-hour length. At times the film is like a surreal dream while other moments feel like a haunting nightmare. Regardless, this is one of the most memorable films of the year and demands to be seen on a big-screen to take in its cinematic mastery.  

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

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