Anytime an audience sits down to see an Alejandro G. Inarritu film, it’s with the understanding the director is fully committed to the idea of cinema as an endurance test. Inarritu pushes himself, the audience, and in this case 19th century frontiersmen, beyond normal limits in The Revenant. The Revenant submerses the audience into a nightmarish, frigid, and forbidding American wilderness with grueling intensity and breathtaking imagery. In its attempt to bring together the Western Revenge thriller with an epic Western, The Revenant falls into the same trap that a lot of Inarritu’s work has done in the past: being too staunch that it detracts from the emotional connections in the film. Even with that being the case, this film rises to the top on the shoulders of a ferocious performance from Leonardo Dicaprio.
The film was adapted by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, which is set in 1823-24 in the “territories” (Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming). It centers around a fictionalized version of Hugh Glass (Dicaprio), a real man who worked for the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. Theirs is a life of hard work and peril, as we witness when the men are attacked without warning by Arikara Warriors. Right from the start, The Revenant establishes a stylistic approach by beginning with single unbroken shot that ends with an arrow connecting with a man’s throat.
For starters, The Revenant, must be admired for the sheer technical marvel of the actual film. There is almost a lyrical quality to it- a harmonic balance between the beauty and the horror of the natural world that grabs the audience right from the opening frame. Glass is traveling with his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a descendent from the Pawnee tribe on his mother’s side, and the two are fiercely protective of one another. The other trappers, led by the Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhall Gleeson), show Glass and his son the respect they have earned, with the exception of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who seem to have his own agenda as to why he’s part of the Rocky Mountain Fur Co.
And so there’s trouble brewing even before Glass ventures out and is mauled by a bear, in what only can be described as the most squeamish visceral scene of an animal attack that has been shown on screen, which seems to be more realistic due to the single take. Glass kills the bear but not before it rips him to shreds. The task of carrying Glass’s body off the snowy terrain gets to be too much, so it’s decided that Glass will be left behind with his son, Fitzgerald (really not the best idea), and a young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), so he can be buried properly. Things don’t go nearly as well as intended. Glass is left for dead, buried in a shallow grave.
We quickly learn that a desire for vengeance can become its own form of motivation, as Glass manages to claw his way out of that shallow grave, find food, water, and stay alive long enough to begin the healing process. Since Glass can barely utter a word let alone a sentence, Dicaprio must convey Glass’s struggle through grunts, wheezes, and sharp painful breaths. One of simplest of moments that really hit that point home is Inariutu and Emmanuelle Lubezki’s abundance of close-ups, allowing for Dicaprio to mist up the camera giving an all too realistic feel to his struggle. Glass becomes the living embodiment of human endurance.
The only downside to The Revenant being so incredibly focused on vengeance is the film falls short of any sort of emotional connection it’s attempting to make. As an audience, we are asked to buy into the father-son relationship between Dicaprio and Goodluck, but what we witness is more of a utilitarian pairing than anything. At various points, Inarritu uses ghostlike flashbacks to show how much Glass loves Hawk and his mother, but these are more of a reminder of Inarritu’s film Biutiful than any sort emotional connection the film is seeking.
As the saying goes, “You save the best for last” and The Revenant is definitely one of the top 5 films of 2015, at least on a technical sense. The Revenant jettisons audiences down a bloody, barbaric, and beautiful road of nature/vengeance. After a tremendous portfolio of fantastic performances, The Revenant will be regarded as Leonardo Dicaprio’s finest moment as an actor and he will most certainly receive serious awards consideration this year. Whether or not that translates into Oscar glory remains to be seen. To be quite frank, whether or not a movie is “Oscar” worthy shouldn’t be the deciding factor. As an audience we should always do our best to support “quality” films and The Revenant is as quality as it gets.