There’s a reason that the Western genre was once one of the most popular (and to an extant still is) film genres of all time, as the very frontier provides quite a versatile canvas for some of the greatest filmmakers of all time. While many of them included the adventurous journeys of John Ford, more often than not they were used to enhance grittier, bleaker stories, such as Sergio Leone’s intense Man with No Name trilogy, and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, using them to enhance the horrifying actions and deadly consequences that came with the territory. Even Quentin Tarantino, despite his comical indulgences, has used it well to enhance the vilest characteristics of humanity.
For all these reasons, it seemed only natural for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – fresh off a Best Picture Oscar win for last year’s Birdman – to adapt to the setting with The Revenant, as such a setting seems to fall perfectly into his earlier portfolio. If The Hateful Eight was an examination of the most evil side of human beings, than The Revenant is like a haunting trip through Hell itself.
Loosely inspired by a true story and based off the Michael Punke novel of the same name, frontiersman and navigator Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) resides among a small settlement of other hunters and trappers, but after going into the woods to hunt one day, Glass is viciously mauled by a bear, and is likely to die because of it. His son Hawk, and fellow trappers Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) stay behind to care for him until he dies and bury him proper, but after Fitzgerald’s brutal murder of Glass’ son (unbeknownst to Bridger), and fear that the Native-American Arikawa tribe may find them, the two leave Glass for dead. Surviving despite his grueling injuries, Glass wanders, crawls, and stumbles through the wilderness with one instinct in mind: revenge.
With his usual niche in focusing on characters in unforgiving atmospheres and locations, it’s not hard to see why a director like Inarritu would be drawn to this type of subject matter, and indeed, the movie becomes his show from beginning to end. Compared to the verbose and satirical jabs of Birdman, The Revenant is practically a silent film, limiting the use of its own dialogue, and even lead star DiCaprio speaks most of his lines in non-English languages. One may assume the limited dialogue would be less impressive in the long run, but the film more than makes up for that through its visual storytelling, with Inarritu complementing his script (co-written by Mark Smith) through his fantastic attention to detail.
It’s been no secret that the production of The Revenant was very rocky, even leading to reported physical altercations, given Inarritu is a technical perfectionist, but I’m thankful to say that that same dedication came through in every second of the film. With his DP Emmanuel Lubezki, Inarritu frames the western landscape like a godforsaken halfway gate between paradise and a merciless underworld, perhaps closer to the latter given the amount of obstacles Glass faces. Often shot with very little actual sunlight or warm lighting in any way, and making extensive use of long takes, the landscape challenges Glass like something out of The Divine Comedy, with each new experience more deadly than the last, and the eerie sound work emphasizing the blistering and shivering cold atmosphere. Visceral to the point that even its strongest viewers may find themselves squirming, Inarritu refuses to shy away from the bloody and harrowing test of endurance on these individuals, examining the terrible lengths and tribulations that such humans would put themselves through with uncompromising detail.
But much like Birdman, if Inarritu is the brains of the film, then the actors are the soul of it. With Mad Max and Legend also to his credit in 2015, Tom Hardy has easily been one of the MVP’s of the year, and this is assuredly the best performance of his career. A gruff and violent man as unforgiving as the very land he walks through, his cowardly, racist, utterly despicable John Fitzgerald embodies the foulest of what the landscape offered up, a “man who killed God” so to speak, made cynical by the harsh conditions he works in, and yet, somewhere within such a hateful, vicious man, Hardy still manages to elicit some pity for the character. Dare I say something even sympathetic despite such irredeemable actions.
The film also makes fine use out of its much more sympathetic supporting players like Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter, but it’s, to no one’s surprise, Leonardo DiCaprio who shines brightest of them all. Wandering around the icy fields like a half-dead phantom, never before has DiCaprio shown so much haunting emotional desolation or physical devastation, with his Hugh Glass repeatedly subjected to some of the most grueling trials imaginable, often scrounging to live with whatever guerilla skills called upon him, but more importantly it’s his facial expressions and eye movements that are the meat of his performance, to the point that the man completely disappears into his character. By the time the movie has reached its end, you don’t doubt for a moment that this man has seen unfathomable torture and come out the other end bloodied and scarred beyond recognition.
A different beast from Birdman altogether, while I still prefer that previous film (it is one of my all time favorites, after all), The Revenant is one of the most haunting movie experiences I’ve had all year. Simultaneously punishing and rewarding, Inarritu once again proves why he’s one of the most unique and inimitable voices in modern filmmaking, making subdued and powerful showcase out of an excellent ensemble cast, and absolutely drains its viewers by the end. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck after its finale, and for a story like this, I should feel that way about it. Even now, I can’t wait to experience it all over again.
Man, I need something light to raise my spirits again.
***** / *****