Allegedly based on a real incident that occurred in the Summer of 1823, The Revenant tells the tale of an epic struggle against nature and the sheer will to survive. What you already know no doubt, is that this is the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio fights a bear and puts himself through living hell in order to finally achieve Oscar glory (fingers crossed).
DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a real life mountain man, frontiersman and basically, the original Bear Grylls. Leading a fur-trapping expedition down the Missouri river in search of beaver belts, Glass’ party is ambushed by Native Americans. Suffering heavy losses and with the tribe in pursuit, Glass is forced to lead the survivors home through a hostile environment. It is here that he has a dramatic encounter with a bear. With seemingly mortal wounds, two of the group are left behind in order to give Glass a Christian burial. Unfortunately for Glass, one of these men is John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy), a tough, brutal mercenary who chose to stay for the financial incentive. With Glass clinging to life for days, Fitzgerald decides to speed things along but is stopped by Glass’ son. He kills the boy and then buries Glass alive. It is here that Glass’ fight for survival and vengeance begins.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, director of last year’s Oscar winning Birdman, went to painstaking lengths to create this picture. Filming in only natural light, in temperatures as low as -25C and without green screen or digital wizardry, the production has already entered Hollywood folklore. Fortunately for all those concerned, these efforts have paid off tremendously and the final product is a wonderful film deserved to be experienced in the cinema.This film is undoubtedly DiCaprio’s moment to truly shine. Despite having only a dozen or so lines of dialogue throughout, his actions and commitment to the process have the audience rooting for him in his fight for survival and there are so many incredible scenes to pick out. From catching and eating a live fish to sleeping inside a dead horse a la The Empire Strikes Back, the 200 mile crawl home is memorable. But these set pieces’ predominantly work because of the believability of DiCaprio as Glass and you can feel yourself willing him on throughout.
The wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots
Despite this, it is fair to say that DiCaprio is upstaged by the wonderful cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. Having won consecutive Oscars for Gravity and Birdman, it will be no surprise if he makes it three in a row. Filmed on location in both Canada and Argentina, the film is gorgeous to look at. But more importantly, Lubezki depicts not only the beauty but the brutality of nature. Much like Gravity, it is the sense of isolation and the dangers of the environment that shine throughout this film. Beyond the serene beauty and moments of quiet, the action sequences are stunning to watch (Michael Bay, take note). Of course the bear scene is incredible, but the ambush scene at the beginning of the film is equally stunning. In particular, there’s a shot which follows a Native American kill a fur-trapper which subsequently then tracks him to his own demise, that is incredible to watch. There are so many other jaw dropping moments like this that put action blockbusters to shame.
But here are some misgivings with The Revenant that prevent it from achieving classic status. Given that he was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar, it may raise a few eyebrows to say that one of the problems is with Tom Hardy. He allegedly watched Tom Berenger’s performance in Platoon as inspiration for this role and it does show. Unfortunately, it is a pale imitation but in his defence, Hardy has little room to develop his character. Beyond the motivations of money there is little to explain why Fitzgerald is the way he is. What is difficult to defend however, is Hardy’s accent which re-enters Bane territory. Muffled and difficult to understand, whole sentences may pass you by and this becomes distracting.
The other issue is that given the length of the film, there is a sense of anti-climax in the finale. The pace of the first 2 hours never lets up but unfortunately slows in its final act before the inevitable showdown. Given that in real life, Glass forgave Fitzgerald on his return to camp, you get the impression that Iñárritu struggled to find an ending satisfying for a cinema audience. This is however, a minor gripe given the overall quality of the film.
It is difficult not to admire The Revenant. It is an ambitious film littered with “wow” moments. Beautifully filmed and wonderfully acted by DiCaprio, it is a classic revenge tale made incredibly well that will live long in the memory. But whether the ending is satisfying and whether you could watch it again, will divide opinion.
Reviewed by David Sanders