Director: Alejandro Iñárittu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson
Running Time: 156 minutes
Release Date: January 15th
Whether Leonardo DiCaprio’s chase for an Oscar is a Hollywood self-fulfilling prophecy or complete media fabrication, it makes for an interesting lens with which to watch the award season through. As years go on, DiCaprio’s roles become more and more showy, leaving behind his pretty boy image to play a hate-spewing monster running a plantation or a smug and pompous stockbroker who funded a life of excess on the foundations of lives he decimated. Now he’s taking a swing at the survival genre that historically generates an awful lot of nominations — Hanks in Cast Away, Bullock in Gravity, Franco in 127 Hours — but not a lot of statues. (If he doesn’t win with The Revenant, the only thing left might be the nuclear option that Tropic Thunder warned against.)
Everyone loves a story about personal struggle, and when you’re counting on your peers to vote for you, the only thing people love more than hardship is hearing about what an arduous task it was to make it. You’d be forgiven for knowing more about The Revenant‘s production than its actual story. Spending half the shoot trekking around a freezing, snow-covered Alberta. Shooting only with natural light. The mutiny of its crew. Tom Hardy getting ‘ass-slammed technically out of Suicide Squad‘ because of extensive re-shoots. This isn’t quite pandering to an audience like making a movie about the movies, but you’ve got to imagine that actors getting to tell the tale of a tough shoot is delivered with the same relish as the crew of the Orca did talking about scars in Jaws.
The Revenant‘s story is a simple one. A group of fur-trappers operating around the Louisiana Purchase in 1823 are attacked by a Native American tribe, losing a third of their crew and leaving the rest scurrying downriver. Their guide, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), is later mauled by a mother grizzly bear, leaving him fatally wounded and unable to travel, putting the remaining men in a moral quandary of what to do. Callously, he’s left behind for dead. But then he doesn’t die, starting a gruelling trip of rebirth, revenge and eating raw animals.
Iñárittu uses a cut and dry story to his advantage, making it a vessel for a meditation on death, grief and retribution. His fastidious approach to shooting on brutal terrain makes every breath leaving a mouth look like a soul trying to escape, every chapped lip and bloodshot eye looks earned. The uninhabited and untouched wilderness has a spectral quality that makes snow-blanketed forests seem like purgatory. What he gets out of DiCaprio is remarkable too, a performance that is without vanity and, most surprisingly, words. After being abandoned, Glass is no longer human, he’s a wounded animal, a feral beast, heavy of breath and with putrid flesh. DiCaprio’s eyes become time-bombs ready to burst with stigmatic blood.
DiCaprio is billed as the star but, in what’s becoming a regular occurrence, it’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki that leaves the best impression. So far he’s shown two sides to his work: the ambition of enormous, action-heavy long takes and the lush, contemplative compositions of his work with Terrence Malick. The Revenant is both, that opens with a breathtaking one-shot of an attack on the camp that is the D-Day landings from Saving Private Ryan in a microcosm; and boasts haunting and vivid images of a pyramid of bones, the Northern Lights and a scene lit using only the embers of a burning village. It’s a punishing film to watch, made all the tougher by exquisite sound work that makes every crunch of snow feel like a further break in Glass’ psyche. Seeing him crawl through frozen rivers and cobble fires together in storms makes you noticeably cold in the cinema. The binary drone and shuddering cellos of the soundtrack — a collaboration between Ryuichi Sakamoto, electronic artist Alva Noto and The National’s Bryce Dessner — hangs with you long after.
The Revenant‘s steadfast insistence on avoiding CG and scouting beautiful remote landscapes is borderline heroic and makes it all the more rewarding a feat with Iñárittu’s ambition, DiCaprio’s commitment and Lubezki’s astute eye the only special effects you need. Savage and visceral, it is startling and relentless, leaving you struggling for breath its entire running time.