Thought you knew what cold was? Think again! Alejandro Iñárritu’s masterpiece sees Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson & Will Poulter shivering their way to a bundle of Oscars.
The Revenant (a re-animated corpse – no zombies here though) is a fictionalised account of the real frontier fur trapper Hugh Glass, famed for attempting an incredible solo journey through frozen wastelands after being left for dead.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in an Oscar-winning performance (hooray!) as Glass, playing him as a hermit-like expert of the land who doesn’t care how unpopular his opinions are; after all, they’re right. His sole goal is to protect & care for Hawk, his half Native American son.
Through circumstances best experienced while watching the film, Leo is left alone to die while the fur-trapping expedition he was guiding (headed by Domhnall Gleeson’s captain) flees from pursuing Arikara tribal warriors. Can he survive the terrifying conditions, escape the Arikara, and exact revenge on those who abandoned him?
It’s remarkable this movie didn’t take the Best Picture Oscar away in its goodie bag alongside Best Director, Best Cinematography & Best Actor. Spotlight was a terrific film, but The Revenant was easily the most unique and breathtaking experience we had in the cinema in 2015.
Emmanuel Lubezki provides his one-shot magic again for several extended sequences, including a terrific thrill-ride of an action opener. These virtuosic moments are balanced by wonderfully peaceful shots of the surrounding landscape, captured in moments of dazzling natural light – at every stage you are reminded of the awesome beauty and savagery of the untamed, frozen American North (meant to be what is now Montana & South Dakota, but actually filmed in Canada & Argentina alongside several US locations).
It would be easy to say Leo’s Oscar-winning performance mainly comes down to chattering teeth, which given the actual shooting temperature isn’t exactly a feat of method acting, but that would overlook the subtlety of movement & emotion on display. It’s easy to believe you’re seeing real fear, real desperation, real expertise, even real love in his Hugh Glass; and with hardly any dialogue to communicate it.
However, the film is bolstered enormously by an equally convincing supporting cast. We couldn’t believe Tom Hardy didn’t take Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the paranoid John Fitzgerald. His anxious, hollowed-out survivalist provides a huge part of the dramatic & historical context. Will Poulter is also excellently cast as the young, idealistic James Bridger, learning fast and harsh lessons about trust and self-preservation in frontier adventurers.
The two main criticisms we’ve heard focus on the length of the movie and the deliberately ‘artistic’ choices regarding narrative and tone.
On the length, it’s fair to say the pace is slow; lots of gaps for silence, rest & reflection – but it all works within the context. If the film’s premise and performances have grabbed you, you’ll be as glad of these peaceful moments as the characters on screen appear to be; and you’ll also be carried along with the struggles of challenging practical tasks shown in real-time detail.
And we did feel there were some self-indulgent artistic moments, like the abstract spirituality of Glass’ personal visions and Gladiator-esque out-of-body experiences, and the score (a joint effort between Ryuichi Sakamoto of Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence, Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner), which occasionally carries a little too much portent for what’s actually unfolding in the scene. But the overall artistry just adds to the isolating and surreal situations experienced by the protagonists. You’ll ask questions about life, death, purpose etc. and feel cold doing it!
The main stone we had to throw was the lack of clarity about whether the narrative is really aiming for revenge, self-discovery, or survival. Specific and often brief scenes emphasise the revenge plot, but these can feel like way-points on a very meandering path. The overall tone and experience is far more survival than agency; in those moments where Leo looks like giving up, it seems to be love & fond memories that keep him going, rather than a desire for justice.
It’s a powerful and stunning experience overall, highly deserving of all the accolades – if you haven’t seen it yet, get the DVD ordered and set aside a good, cold evening to switch off all the lights, curl up in front of the TV in a particularly furry sleeping gown and get engrossed in a unique cinematic journey (…we weren’t paid to say that last bit – promise!)