Film Review: The Revenant (MA15+, USA, 2015)

In this survival and revenge tale set in the wild of the American frontier lands, one man is pitted against the forces of nature, the brutality of man and his own will to live or die in this sometimes graphically violent but consistently visually beautiful film.

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu the man who brought you Birdman and Biutiful brings us this long sweeping epic journey and a tale of survival at the cost of vengeance. Admittedly The Revenant has been adapted from Michael Punke’s 2002 book of the same name with a loose disclaimer of “based in part”.The film follows the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his fur trapper hunting party led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). After being attacked by a tribe of Arikara (“Ree”) warriors the group flee and make their way back to a military fort and trading outpost to recover. Glass and his teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) a Pawnee descendant on his mother’s side have to navigate them there, and whilst the majority of the group are respectful enough of the pair, the singular John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) takes a particular disliking to them both and the circumstances which are costing him money. When Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear and left barely alive Captain Henry makes the decision for Hawk, another young naive trapper Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald to stay behind to give him a proper burial when he finally does pass. Fitzgerald however has zero intention of letting this take a natural course, murdering Hawk and attempting to murder Glass by burying him alive and then lying to Bridger about it. Glass, on the brink of death fuelled by rage and vengeance manages to dig himself out of his grave, find food, water and shelter and soon his mission becomes solely to track down Fitzgerald and exact his revenge.

The film is graphic and brutal and intense and no holds barred.The colonisation of America by the white settlers as they moved across the continent was a violent and aggressive take over of the land from the Native Americans. The frontier lands was full of not just human predators but natural ones too. The grizzly bear attack scene is a squirm-inducing sucker punch that is but one of many moments that will leave you white-knuckled and horrified. Then of course there’s the weather and braving the elements, as the winter begins to set in food, water and shelter become scarce. But on the flipside to all this brutality, Innaritu and his cinematographer partner Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity) also manage to showcase the breathtaking beauty of the wilderness and the terrain the characters traverse. Both Innaritu and Lubezki were adamant about keeping this as real as possible, insisting on shooting only with natural light and when the warmer temperatures set in early in the Canadian filming locations causing the snow to melt, they carted the whole production off down to Argentina to shoot the final winter-snow-filled scenes. But where Lubezki has excelled is where he switches from tight, close shots where it feels like you’re practically sitting on someone’s shoulder and spinning 360-degrees to pulling back and opening to a wide shot of seeing the melee going on. In one moment you can practically feel the breath, the next you’re almost airborne looking down. There are also several long tracking shots that seem like they would’ve been impossible to film and yet Lubezki has captured them and they all add to the realism.

When it comes to the performances, DiCaprio has never suffered more for his art than in this film, and to be honest if he doesn’t win the Best Actor Oscar for this film I’m not sure what more he can do to the convince The Academy of his worth. Unlike the solitary Mark Watney in The Martian who repeatedly speaks to us via documenting his journey, here DiCaprio has almost nobody to converse with (plus his throat had been nearly ripped out by a bear so…). And so his dialogue comes to us via grunts, wheezes for air and groans of anguished pain but most surprisingly of all, the sheer vengeful glint in his eyes. So there’s not much in the way of dialogue on his part but at the same time it’s not necessary, Innaritu and Lubezki show us rather than tell. However not so surprisingly it’s Tom Hardy’s despicable Fitzgerald with his indeterminable and barely understandable Hillbilly accent who delivers the most dialogue as he repeatedly complains about the fact that he’s in it for the money, or that Glass is about to die so they should leave him, or that he merely did what anybody else would’ve done (ie: saved their own skins). But again, the dialogue almost seems unnecessary, and due to his ridiculous accent I tuned most of it out. But it’s the dynamic of these two characters that is what drives the film. With Hardy’s Fitzgerald going from hunter to hunted and DiCaprio’s Glass almost turning from man into animal in his pursuit. And whilst the dialogue might be lacking, the music provided by Ryuichi Sakamoto (Babel) is both ethereal and occasionally ominous and grim and really does a great job of filling in the gaps where there is no speaking so thanks to this it never feels like it’s silent or lacking in ambiance.

Where this film struggles though is in sticking to a singular theme. In parts Innaritu and his fellow screenplay writer Mark L Smith seem to jump back and forth between the very gritty struggle Glass endures and some other-wordly like spiritual flashback/dream sequences. These feel like they’re supposed to convey some sort of character depth but they just prove to be confusing and interject into an already lengthy story about Glass’ pursuit of Fitzgerald which dominates the story. Not to mention that the passage of time in this film is difficult to ascertain, and even though we’re given a sense of the size of the wilderness they’re in, we’re never given a time frame or scope of the journey itself. Also at 156 minutes (almost 3 hours) long it can be an uncomfortably long time in a cinema chair and being that it’s so graphic and visually realistic it’s definitely not for the faint hearted or squeamish or animal lovers who can’t bear to watch them being killed.

Innaritu has managed to capture what feels like the real essence of the wilderness, the men that struggled to live and work there and the dangers that came with it. This was both a challenge of a film to make and can at times be a challenge to watch, but it’s well worth it if you can manage it.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 156 minutes

The Revenant is screening nationally in Australian cinemas from 7th January 2016 through 20th Century Fox