‘Gruelling’ is one of the few words that almost adequately describes The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio fights through 200 miles of frozen North American wilderness in pursuit of bloody vengeance.
Birdman director Alejando G. Iñárritu is back with his latest effort at Academy gold, this time loosely adapting the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), left for dead in the snow by his fellow trappers after a vicious mauling from a bear. Through near-superhuman grit and determination, he’s able to (occasionally literally) drag himself back to the fort for revenge, braving both the elements and hostile Native Americans in order to do so.
Even ahead of its release The Revenant has drawn infamy for its troubled shoot. The obsessive pursuit of authentic scenery, and an insistence on shooting only in natural light, led to crew mutiny and extensive reshoots which cost Tom Hardy his role in Suicide Squad. On-set drama aside, the benefits of Iñárritu’s rigour are immediately apparent. The stunning, brutal wilderness takes centre stage, offering inhospitability on a grand scale. Every icy plain and snow-drenched forest is brought dizzingly to life as the camera weaves around trees, hovers overhead and occasionally pulls back for dizzying vistas.
The closest The Revenant ever gets to artificial light are the occasional fires lit by its straggling survivors, and cinematographer Emmanuel Libezki (returning from his award-winning work on Birdman) does more with each glowing spark than most directors can manage with an entire lighting rig.
Much talk has been made of DiCaprio’s hopes of finally winning a long overdue Oscar for his role as Glass, and while it’s not a career-best performance, it’s certainly worth of recognition. There’s more than one-note revenge to Glass, who’s humanised by his half-Native American son. DiCaprio portrays love, loss, anger, fear, and, frequently, pure determination, much of it silently, in an anguished performance that’s a far cry from the charmers with which he’s made his name.
Most of DiCaprio’s sparse dialogue is in the Native Pawnee tongue, and the film gently explores (inasmuch as anything about The Revenant can be called gentle) the trappers’ position as immigrants, and perhaps trespassers, on the land of a people who’ve been there much longer than they. There are few easy heroes or villains here (though the French don’t exactly come off well), with warfare between the Native peoples shown to be just as damaging as anything the European interlopers can bring to bear.
Tom Hardy occasionally verges on caricature with his sneering, self-centred villian Fitzgerald, the object of Glass’ revenge, though he makes the most of the script’s meatiest monologues, and captures some of the same lumbering physicality he brought to Mad Max: Fury Road. Will Poulter keeps up with Hardy ably, though Domhnall Gleeson is less convincing as the captain of the fort, never quite delivering on the character’s gravitas or sense of threat.
A slightly baggy runtime leaves the film lulling at points, but the film’s sensory overload never lets up. Kinetic camerawork brings the most intense moments to heart-pounding, breath-catching life, with viscera and body horror as grizzly as the bear that mauls poor Glass.
The Revenant is jaw-dropping cinematic spectacle at its best, a reminder of the possibilities created when technical sophistication and artistic adventurousness work hand-in-hand. It’s a film that yearns to be seen on the biggest screen you can find, and rewards such efforts handsomely.
Words by Dominic Preston