At its most fundamental, The Revenant is as spare and simple a revenge story as they come. A man, betrayed by those he trusted, is left for dead only to survive and seek revenge. It’s with brute savagery and dreamlike beauty that director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu (director of last year’s best film, Birdman) brings this familiar tale roaring to life. Featuring stunning single-take camerawork, a cryptically beautiful winter setting, and a grueling, intense performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant often crosses over from “just a movie” to a fully engulfing experience that grabs you by the throat. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an explorer on an expedition of uncharted wilderness somewhere in 1820’s North America. After an opening scene battle leaves his team diminished and on the run, things get worse. He’s brutally attacked and mauled by a bear, leaving him with devastating injuries and clinging to life. After initially trying to get him to safety on a makeshift stretcher, the remaining team members decide to split up, leaving Glass’s close confidant, Fitzgerald (Hardy) and an accomplice, Bridger (Poulter), to see that he gets a proper burial once he perishes. Fitzgerald quickly loses his patience and, with the promise of money for seeing through Glass’s burial, leaves him for dead in the woods. Through sheer will to survive, Glass begins to recover and hunt down the men who did him wrong.
The Revenant‘s centerpiece, the bear onslaught that sets up the revenge portion of the film, is as visceral a cinematic sequence as any of recent memory. It’s not often that we stare at the screen, slack-jawed, truly wondering how a scene is pulled off. This is one of those scenes. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have created a grimly beautiful winter land. Nearly every shot in the film could be framed and hung on a wall as Lubezki makes maximum use of the wide frame and raw, open country. With minimal dialogue, Iñárritu pushes the story along at a nice pace that benefits from slow burn cat-and-mouse games. Though they don’t detract in any meaningful way, a few of Glass’s dream sequences feel extraneous and could have been excised to add even more urgency to his mission.
Leonardo DiCaprio turns in one of the best performances of his career in a physically demanding, pretty much miserable-looking shoot. He effortlessly conveys the palpable pain his character is going through while clearly adding authenticity by swimming in near-freezing rivers and consuming animal innards. A nearly unrecognizable Tom Hardy continues to surprise with his acting choices, this time as an at-times over-the-top double-crosser with a speech pattern that makes about every fifth word discernible. He offers the closest thing to comedic relief in The Revenant, which isn’t much. Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson are excellent in supporting roles, particularly the former as an unwilling conspirator to Fitzgerald’s decision to leave Glass behind.
The Revenant is as grim and bleak a major studio release as we’ve seen since 2006’s Apocalypto. There’s a slew of brutal, savage violence and it won’t be an easy watch for many mainstream audiences. But what it does it does so well. Iñárritu and DiCaprio never let go of the jugular from the opening scene on. The cinematography is nothing short of jaw-dropping and the simple, strings-driven score accents everything to perfection. It’s another sweeping accomplishment for Iñárritu, one of our most talented directors, and one of 2015’s best films. Just make sure you know what you’re in for.
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Length: 156 Minutes
Rating: R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.
Theatrical Release: December 25, 2015 (Limited) / January 8, 2016 (Wide)
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu & Mark L. Smith. Based in part on the novel by Michael Punke.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Paul Anderson