We’ve all heard by now the tales of the legendarily arduous shoot required to make The Revenant. By all accounts it was hellish: remote locations were exhaustively researched and then abandoned on a whim; actors were stretched to breaking point by conditions that plunged to minus 40; facilities were primitive; and many of the overworked crew reportedly downed tools as a result. But whatever struggles they endured were well worth it.
Alejandro Iñárritu’s latest is a brutally beautiful and relentlessly punishing tale of survival in the most harshly uncompromising of environments that tests the boundaries of what wonders old school filmmaking can produce.
Much like Iñárritu’s previous effort, last year’s superlative Birdman, The Revenant is a technical masterpiece. Shooting only in natural light and using only limited CGI, the director has captured the savagery and complexity of the frozen landscape in a way that feels palpably authentic. Like a mash-up of Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan, long, unbroken close-ups are used to bring this nightmarish vision to life. At times the camera is so close the actor’s breath literally fogs the lens.
This is used to particularly visceral effect in the stunning scene where Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist, legendary frontiersman Hugo Glass, is mauled by a grizzly bear protecting its young cubs. As Glass is tossed around like a fleshy ragdoll, you’ll feel like you’re living every moment with him, such is the unflinching barbarity of Iñárritu’s direction.
Yet the film can also be captivatingly gorgeous. Like vintage Terrence Malick, still shots of babbling streams and frosted sunlight bursting through the foliage reveal the soul and serenity of the expansive terrain on which the cast find themselves marooned. This perfectly paced juxtaposition of beauty and brutality is at the heart of a story that lays bare the best and worst of humanity, highlighting how these traits often exist side-by-side.
Based on Michael Punke’s A Novel of Revenge, itself loosely drawn from true events, this is the story of Glass, a trapper who suffers the aforementioned bear battering while scouting through a forest. Honourable but weary Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) leaves a badly injured Glass in the dubious care of the callous John Fitzgerald (played with grumbling menace by Tom Hardy) and Will Poulter’s weakly earnest Bridger, who promptly abandon him to die alone in the wilderness.
At this point the story switches into Bear Grylls meets Kill Bill mode as Glass claws his way out of the dirt and braves Arikara warriors, punishing blizzards and rotting wounds to track his party and exact revenge on those who done him wrong.
DiCaprio is at his ferocious best as Glass. In a role that’s largely unspoken, save for a few growled threats, DiCaprio conveys all his power and purpose through gaze alone, his eyes constantly ablaze with pain and intensity. It’s an imposing, bravura performance, and one that will surely bag the actor his first Oscar.
The Revenant’s only drawback is its patience-sapping 156-minute runtime. By striving for sprawling intimacy, intersecting Glass’ travails with those of his fellow explorers and of the natives hunting them down, Iñárritu has stretched a simple story beyond necessity. There are only so many times you can watch Glass drop to the floor in a fit of wheezing fever before your attention starts to wane.
But if you can endure the exhausting, viscerally charged journey, you’ll find this gruelling survival odyssey to be richly rewarding.
Runtime: 156 mins; Genre: Thriller; Released: 15 January 2016;
Director: Alejandro Iñárritu; Writers: Alejandro Iñárritu’s, Mark L. Smith;
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson
Click here to watch a trailer for The Revenant