by Justin MadoreThe Revenant has been the talk of cinephiles everywhere for quite awhile now. Originally in development by Oldboy director Park Chan-wook with Samuel L. Jackson set to star, the film has gone through quite a few changes over the course of about a decade and a half. It wasn’t until the rising star director, Alejandro González Iñárritu picked up the project that it was thrust into the spotlight as the next great cinematic epic. Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) had been the correct horse to bet on with a trifecta of wins at last year’s Oscars, and through those victories, Iñárritu grabbed everyone’s attention and was poised to do something big for his follow-up. With Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, I think it’s fair to say that The Revenant was a winner in all of our minds long before it hit the big screen.
This is a tale so grueling and unlikely, it can strike you as being almost mythical. While exploring the vast wilderness of the post-Louisiana Purchase American West, a group of trappers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is sent running by a band of Arikara natives who kill most of their company. After departing for the closest outpost, the surviving group’s navigator, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), is mauled by a bear, further slowing down the party. With Glass unable to walk on his own, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a selfish racist, offers to look after him before killing Glass’ half-Native American son and returning to the group. Glass wakes up in a shallow grave, freezing and ravaged by his wounds—alone in the wilderness. The rest of the film is essentially the chronicling of Glass’ journey to reach safety and avenge the murder of his son. It plays as a solid revenge flick, and, despite some highly interpretive sequences of artsy metaphors, it can come off as a bit one note.
The ensemble of the film is solid, and while Hardy and Gleeson (who is having quite the banner year, by the way) are great, this really is DiCaprio’s show. And what a show it is! After countless roles of increasing difficulty and a continued lack of recognition at the Academy Awards, DiCaprio has become a meme in pop culture. He’s a man desperately trying to achieve something he will seemingly never grasp. However, he may just have broken his spell with his performance in The Revenant. Glass is a tremendously different character than any DiCaprio’s played in previous films. Jordan Belfort, the coked-up stockbroker, and Calvin Candie, the pompous slave owner, are far cries from this very physical role.
Filming took place in frigid temperatures, with Dicaprio trudging through sub-zero waters and eating raw Bison liver. These are extremes few actors would go to without resorting to visual effects or stunt doubles. The sheer amount of dedication an actor has to have to go that extra mile puts DiCaprio a step above the rest. As he crawls out of his grave, the anguish you can see in his face is both believable and excruciating. The emotion he expresses as a man punished by the wild, only seeking revenge, is communicated almost entirely through facial expressions and body language, and Leo’s able to sell his performance better than most actors with a solid script. With this performance, it’s hard to imagine him not winning a shiny Oscar at the 2016 Academy Awards. If he doesn’t, win, it’ll be interesting to see if he can find and even more extreme role to take on. He wants that Oscar, and he may just kill himself trying to get it.As a technical piece of art, The Revenant is almost undisputably a masterclass. Cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (who shot both Gravity and Birdman), presents the film in absolutely stunning fashion. Long, pristine shots of the glacial landscape dominate the film and give life to perhaps the most fleshed out character of all: the landscape. Surprisingly, the lifeless vistas exude more personality than anyone in the film. The cinematography establishes the environment as a beautiful, but brutal frozen tundra. It’s a place full of life, death, and yes, dangerous mother bears. After Birdman’s seamless single-take illusion last year, Lubezki is back under the direction of Iñárritu with a ferocity resembling his earlier work on crack, as lengthy tracking shots capture the barbaric nature of 19th century combat. All of this is underscored by a somber, yet menacing score, bringing the grimness of the story to life in all its visceral glory.
It’s that sense of the visceral that is both a poignant tool and a numbing device. The Revenant is technically brilliant to be sure, but at a whopping two and a half hours, the pain Glass endures will go from endearing to tiresome for some viewers. The film does seem to drag in parts, as the wilderness relentlessly beats him down again and again. And while those parts may be true, it might have made more sense to skip out on one or two scenes of Glass’ torture in service of moving the plot forward at a faster rate. Couple this with a near absolute lack of levity, and you get a film that will be incredibly challenging for some people to watch. Iñárritu isn’t interested in coddling his audience, he’s interested in barraging them.
Even though it’s overstretched and a bit thin, The Revenant has turned out to be quite the cinematic achievement. Glass’s real life story continues to take on a life of its own, being realized this time in what I suspect will be the definitive version of the story. DiCaprio and the rest of the cast portray the grueling world with complete recognition of the realities of the time, and do it seemingly with ease, in extreme conditions. As an auteur, this is Iñárritu raising the bar for himself once again, further defining his style and making us all wonder what treat he’ll deliver us next.
4 out of 5 stars