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The Revenant (2016): Review

There are very few films that beg us to consider the experience of an actor more than the story they portray. What did they go through in order to achieve (perhaps even survive) what we see on film? Francis Ford Coppalas’ Apocalypse Now is infamous for how it nearly ruined the director and killed its star. Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing Fitzcarraldo (1982) is another, where the cast literally haul a massive, 320-ton steam powered river boat up and over a mountain. The task nearly broke the director, mentally and physically while putting him at violent odds with his star Klaus Kinski.

Now we have The Revenant, another journey of sorts, about a frontiersman and fur trapper who is mauled by a grizzly bear and then left for dead by the men sworn to protect him. His survival and quest for revenge is a jarring, brutal, achingly beautiful odyssey that thoroughly exhausts the viewer. It has flaws, but only slightly tarnish the experience, and remains a staggering, monumental piece of cinema.

It begins with terror. In the snowbound forests of northern North America, a group of fur trappers on the shore of an icy river, clustered in a thicket of trees, cold and tired from their work, are attacked by horseback-riding Native Americans, who we learn later are hunting a group of white men who have kidnapped the chief’s daughter. With devastating efficiency, their silent arrows find their targets, piercing flesh with ghastly precision. As they swoop in and the chaos escalates, the trappers make a run for their sheltered boat, desperately grabbing what they can as axes and arrows reign upon them with terrifying ferocity. It is a frightful moment of shocking urgency, brutal reality, and breathtaking movie magic. 

Among these trappers are two men of significance. One is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a callous, bitter man, a survivor of a scalping, and one bent on ruthless determination to finish the job he was hired to do. The other is Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an experienced frontiersman with a teenaged half-Native American son working beside him. They manage to board the boat and escape the assault, escaping with a handful of others, including the leader of the expedition, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). He orders that they return to the outpost with what they have, their plan now simply to make it out alive. Fitzgerald disagrees and the contention is obvious, but worse between he and Glass. He acquiesces, they abandon the boat and begin a trek through the mountains.

Not long after, as the men make camp, Glass is by himself hunting and scouting ahead. He hears a rustle and sees a pair of young bear cubs break from the underbrush. He knows precisely what that means, and it’s not a moment later when their mother, a massive, sodden grizzly bear erupts from the thicket and charges.

What follows is one of the most harrowing moments I have ever seen in film. Devoid of a score, the extended scene is a long, unbroken shot that has us fully a part of the ordeal. We are on the ground with Glass as it unfolds into a devastating display of tactical survival. What’s remarkable is how much sympathy the bear elicits from the audience and how genuine it feels. This bear is not a monster, but a mother, and that we recognize this in her is one thing, but when she makes a choice, it catches us off guard. It is a sensational movie moment.

When it’s over, Glass is barely alive and is discovered by a search party. On the brink of certain death, Henry decides Glass is unfit for travel, and with his ravaged body bound to a travois-like sled, leaves him with three volunteers who are guaranteed extra pay to stay with him for his final hours and give him a proper burial while the rest move on. Thinking of the money, Fitzgerald stays but after a few days, tires of tending to a man he hates. Worse, Hugh’s half-breed son, who has also stayed behind, won’t listen to reason. Fitzgerald makes a deal with Glass (who can’t speak) that is, by any standard, unfair, then commits a shocking act, half buries Glass in a shallow grave and lies to the other volunteer, running off with him into the woods. The rest of the film, clocking in at over 150 minutes, is Hugh’s epic, ruinous journey figuratively and literally out of the woods.

Director Alejandor Gonzalez Inarritu co-wrote the film with Mark L. Smith, adapted from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, The Revenant, a fictionalized account of a very real man who survived a bear attack and managed to travel 200 miles in the snow back to safety. The quest for revenge in both the book and film are only one of many embellishments in this already frightening story, but that’s not important. Inarritu’s film is a masterpiece not for its historical accuracy. It is so because of its artistry. Employing his go-to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won Oscars for Gravity and Inarritu’s Birdman, he will surely be in line for a third. Shooting live on location with nothing but natural light, the film is an open canvas of breathtaking visuals, with skies that stretch to infinity and snowcapped peaks that loom like titans.

This is also where the film begins to show its cracks though, as the sweeping imagery begins to become indulgent, shifting to a more existential feel rather than the magnificently grounded opening scenes. This may be a narrative choice, meant to metaphorically symbolize the ethereal passage of time the suffering Glass endures, but wears on the viewer, creeping just a bit into Terrance Malick territory. Another issue is Hardy, whose portrayal of Fitzgerald is far too villainous for the circumstances, his approach too well-defined as the one we should hate, which feels a little cheap and would have been better if he were a man who made a fateful decision rather than a selfish one. The ending too, sees a confluence of plot points that leave a slight taste of dissatisfaction simply because of how well the story carried us up to it.

But this is DiCaprio’s movie. That almost all of what we see is real, that in an age when anything can be (and often is) done by computer effects, with DiCaprio spending months in the snow like he did, it’s hard not to appreciate the actor for his work more than the film itself. Like Tom Cruise, who straps himself to jumbo jets to entertain, DiCaprio utterly commits to this role for the sake of the story. It’s his greatest acting achievement and when Hugh Glass stares into the camera, we aren’t considering him, but the actor portraying him. When the Oscar nomination comes, and it will, there is no doubt this one will be earned.

Like any great film, it’s the questions we ask when it is over that come to define it. “What if?” moments are aplenty here, and it’s impossible not to think about what we might do given the same circumstances. The Revenant will inspire such questions. There are three particular events that test not just how much one man can endure (the bear being one), but also how far an audience is expected to accept what they see. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t believable. It means that we find ourselves in an utterly unfamiliar world with not much to cling to that makes sense. That is often the defining feature of Inarritu’s films. Like Birdman before, The Revenant is a provocative venture. It takes risks, and will be discussed long after it’s over.

The Revenant (2016): Review

Director(s): Alejandro González Iñárritu

Actor(s): Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter

Genre: Drama, Adventure

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