Only Alejandro G. Iñárritu could make the raw, cruel winter landscape of the 1820s U.S. Midwest looks as hauntingly beautiful as he does in the multiple Oscar-nominated film, The Revenant. Iñárritu is a filmmaker’s filmmaker, prioritising the camera, though never at the cost of magnetic storytelling.
The semi-biographical The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugo Glass, a fur-trapper who joins a hunting party in what is now South Dakota and Montana, along with his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who’s half Native American. The area is uninhabited by frontiersmen, but it’s the territory of the Arikara Native American tribe (who are, of course, a bunch of ‘savages’ hell-bent on scalping the civilised whites who have relieved them of their land). Half the trapping company is killed during battle when the Arikara launch a sudden attack, and much of the valuable fur is lost.
Only Glass and Hawk are well-versed in tracking and navigation, and they lead the remainder of the company into the woods, and through the harsh winter that’s fallen over the Rocky Mountains. While alone in the forest, looking for a deer to shoot, Glass is savagely attacked by a grizzly bear defending her cubs. It’s a brutal, visceral scene. The drool from the bear’s mouth grazes the camera lens. The animal mauls, and repeatedly closes its jaws on Glass’s body, holding him in a deadly embrace. The immensity of the violence in this fight for survival is as breathtaking as it is horrifying.
Impossibly, Glass manages to kill the animal, but he’s severely injured. His throat is ripped open and he’s unable to speak. There are deep wounds across his body where the bear tore through his clothes and skin. There is no way he can walk, much less lead the group through the mountains and back to their settlement, some 200 miles away. At first, the men try to carry Glass on a makeshift stretcher, but it soon becomes clear there is no way to make it across the mountains that way, with a contingent of Arikara likely on their trail. The commander, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), offers to pay a handsome sum of money to those willing to do the right thing and stay with Glass until he dies, and then to give him a ‘Christian’ burial.
Redneck trapper, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and a teenager, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) take up the offer. But Fitzgerald is a greedy, murderous son-of-a-bitch and quickly betrays Glass, who finds himself abandoned, and left for dead in a makeshift grave. Driven by grief and hate, Glass literally drags himself from the freezing soil, and begins the long, impossible belly-crawl through unchartered wilderness in search of vengeance. Despite some criticism likening this film to a revenge Western, it also examines the fate of the Native Americans, engaged in their own fight for survival; not against nature, like the white man, but against the relentless force of colonisation.
The Revenant is brutal and exquisite. Iñárritu again teams up with acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who helped him create the one-take shot that Birdman was filmed with. Iñárritu’s near obsessive perfectionism with The Revenant has gained him some notoriety. Only natural light was used for filming, meaning the entire shoot took nearly nine months, as actors and crew had to return to remote and freezing locations over and over again. For all that suffering, the effect is an almost surreal landscape. Rather than using a zoom, Lubezki brings the lens as close to the subject as possible, creating an uneasy intimacy between audience and screen. Blood, snow, the condensation of a breath, flirt with the camera lens. Wide lenses provide panoramic point-of-view shots that reel in the viewer and command you to revel in its visual magnificence.
And then, there is DiCaprio, who will surely never surpass his performance as the revenant, the one who returns from the dead. The actor has been snubbed by the Oscars five times before (always a bridesmaid; never a bride), and if he does not win the award for best actor this year, he never will. The hatred, grief, and excruciating pain etched on his face and his broken body are all the more marvellous as Glass’ throat injury means he cannot speak.
It is a testament to DiCaprio’s talent that he is able to carry a long film, as the often lone and silent figure on screen, in such a way that it’s riveting every second of its two hours and 36 minutes. DiCaprio truly suffered for his art. When Glass’ lips are grey and purple from the cold, it’s because the actors’ were, in fact grey and purple from the cold during filming. DiCaprio at bison liver (he’s vegetarian), spent time naked inside the carcass of a dead horse, learned to speak two Native American languages, and how to build a fire from scratch (move over, Daniel Day-Lewis).
The Revenant holds you in an icy death-grip, from which you cannot escape.
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Dohmnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 22 January 2016