I went to see “The Revenant” on the day that it was nominated for 12 Oscars, which certainly sets the expectation that it is going to be good – and it is. But I saw it described by DiCaprio as an “epic arthouse western” and that’s a good description. In the same way that Iñárritu’s “Birdman” (this time last year) was unarguably a brilliant but not very mainstream film, so I think the Oscar buzz will attract a big audience to this movie who may find it a struggle to really enjoy. Because it is bleak… unremittingly bleak, in terms of the landscape, the weather and the motives of the characters. It is also extremely violent but, unlike “The Hateful Eight” (another film I saw this week that was unremittingly bleak) the violence is much more gritty, realistic and visceral making the drama a lot more compelling.
DiCaprio plays “Hugh Glass”, an historical figure who was a legendary fur-trapper in the early 1800’s and the central figure in this bear-related yarn. Although the story has been re-embroidered over the years, the ‘facts’ align with the film’s basic story (see the “Daily Telegraph” article outlining this here).
Attacked and pursuing by local natives, Glass’s party is striking across woodland when he is viciously attacked by a 500lb Grizzly bear. Although appearing mortally wounded, he is a highly respected individual and so is stretchered up by his boss Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Unable to proceed further, Henry pays for the mercenary John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to stay with him, together with his half-Pawnee son Hawk and friend Bridger (Will Poulter), to die in peace. Predictably, Fitzgerald is not to be trusted, and Glass is abandoned in a shallow grave. If this is not enough, for other reasons we won’t go into, Glass has even less inclination to keep his fellow trapper on his Christmas card list. Thus is set up a classic revenge movie, with Glass determined to stay alive to enact that revenge despite the enormous odds stacked against him.
This is surely DiCaprio’s year for his elusive Oscar as he turns in a cripplingly painful performance. It is clear that the suffering on screen is not all acting – it cannot be, given the inhospitable conditions in which the crew were filming (in Canada and Argentina). As examples he had to eat raw bison liver as well as suffering a much discussed Han “I thought they smelled bad on the outside” Solo moment. Despite having very few lines to deliver, DiCaprio is on screen for 90% of the time, and it is a bravura performance.
Tom Hardy – also Oscar nominated – is also impressive as the villain of the piece, although for most of the time his lines might have well been delivered through his Bain mask for the sense they made. He is an inveterate mumbler.
Domhnall Gleeson’s performance is also compelling, adding a degree of goodness and compassion to the film that was so missing from “The Hateful 8”. (Gleeson is surely vying this year with Ben Whishaw for the busiest mainstream film appearances after this, “Ex Machina”, “Brooklyn” and “Star Wars”). Finally Will Poulter gets a chance to shine in an A-grade mainstream dramatic movie and he well and truly makes that grade.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has to be commended for eschewing the use of green screens, insisting on live performances and in natural light to boot. Stylistically (and indeed story-wise) the film has many parallels with “Gladiator”, with its effective and artistically constructed dream sequences. But the film is not without special effects, and these are phenomenal, most incredibly delivered during the relentless and gruelling bear attack scene: a seamless blend of live animal work and effects that make it horrifically believable.
There is also some fantastic camera work (by Emmanuel Lubezki) of the “how the hell did they do that variety”. Recalling his work in “Birdman” it’s challenging to do single tracking shots of people walking through buildings. To do these same tracking shots during a pitched battle scene is just phenomenal. During one scene in this harrowing sequence at the film’s start, the camera is on the ground filming a native galloping towards a victim, then the camera is seamlessly filming the rider as he gallops away. Astonishing.
The only area I really didn’t care for was the music, by Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto. A combination of droning strings and (later) some whiny “Ligeti-style” elements, it was in turns intrusive, gloomy and annoying. Music should largely stay in the background to set the mood. This didn’t.
Overall, this is a masterful film, but it is a slog and not a feel-good film to sit through. It also has significant violence which might not suit all viewers, with the final confrontation in particular being one of the most visceral fight scenes I’ve seen in years.
By the way (I had to look it up) the definition of “revenant” is:
But What Did You Think? Do You Agree With My Rating And Comments? Please Let Me Know By Commenting Below!
(Note: in my view, the trailer gives too many elements of the plot away, so – if not too late – I would suggest you avoid it before seeing the film).