Alejandro González Iñárritu is a madman; Emmanuel Lubezki is a peerless artist; and Leonardo DiCaprio has delivered one of the most exciting, versatile and enrapturing performances in recent memory.
When a fur trapping expedition is ambushed by a native tribe on a murderous pursuit to find their Chief's kidnapped daughter, guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) must lead the survivors, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and others through the unforgiving wilderness back to their fort. After a grizzly bear attack at the beginning of their journey Glass is left clinging to the threads of life. Henry (Glesson) makes the tough decision to leave Hawk, Bridger and Fitzgerald behind to attend to Glass and lead the rest of the crew home. When Fitzgerald's greed gets the better of his patience, he murders Hawk, half buries Glass alive and forces Bridger into becoming a false witness to the events. Fuelled by profound vengeance Glass wills his body to overcome a pitiless natural world and unforgiving natives while still in pursuit to find the man who to extinguished his reason to live.
Shot on location in Canada, the U.S and eventually Argentina, DiCaprio is just one of several actors and collaborators who have talked about it being one of the toughest films that they've ever worked on. To take on such an elemental story and embedding a team of filmmakers into those these horrific conditions in the depths of that desolate, frozen wilderness, one can only imagine the pursuit of perfection driving the now Oscar winning director. That said, if the film was a turkey, it would not have been worth the sacrifice.
Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki execute The Revenant with the same level of precision that they composed and structured the back stage action in Birdman, but in a drastically increased degrees of difficulty. The film opens with a precise hunt, stalking through the marshes for deer on the outskirts of a riverside, make-shift fur trapping camp. The production design from the first minutes of The Revenant shows the camp as vibrant, organised, with a filthy chaos of hides in various stages between being tanned and bundled ready for transportation. While Glass (DiCaprio), Hawk (Goodluck) and Bridger (Poulter) are hunting away from the camp attempting to catch an elk; they're suddenly invaded by a native American war party, laying waste to their new temporary structures and skewering man after man with arrows streaming through the air. It's frantic, heart pounding stuff and Lubeski has you gliding through their escape like a balletic spectre. The cinematography is vast to the brink of disorientating. Lubezki makes the wilderness feel like it's constantly surrounding the characters in a way that it feels like it's bursting out of the edges of the screen. When Lubezki choses to pause on the characters, there's a hypnotic focus, you're dialled into them like a predator takes in prey.
Iñárritu co wrote The Revenant with Mark L. Smith based in part on the novel by Michael Punke and it's been stripped back to the most essential ingredients, forcing the actors to convey what their characters are going through other than when it's most essential. While The Revenant is most certainly about overcoming the physical anguish, it also gives you glimpses into Glass' subconscious. The further we travel through Glass' journey the harder it becomes to distinguish between nightmarish reality and the haunting visions of his wife's demise. They blur together in the slightest moments of respite or in fever dreams of recovery. The paternal connection in the film is moving beyond words, in both plots of the film there's an unwavering pursuit, one to rescue and restore and the other quench the meaningless of life when the ones that you love are taken away. Those natives who live on the land have a mastery of it, though their oppression though is the subtext. The script keeps it omnipresent but in the background because in the deepest wilds they are more than at home.
There are so few performances that are as fierce, committed and downright moving. DiCaprio is able to ascend to another level in The Revenant. There's just sequence after sequence where DiCaprio is seething and spitting like the very air that he's breathing is poisonous gas, convulsing and powerless in his stranded situation. Reaching to his the reptilian brain and operating on instinct to survive, we watch him transform through evolutionary stages. He crawls out of muck, learns to walk again, scavenges, and, as his body heals, he realises his humanity in willing himself toward exacting vengeance. This performance is for DiCaprio what Raging Bull was for Robert DeNiro and There Will Be Blood was for Daniel Day Lewis.
Tom Hardy Fitzgerald is a hyena, economical with movement, lolling through his interactions smelling weakness. Instead of eliciting comfort or defusing tension with a maniacal chuckle, the intensity of his greed crushes you like a vice. Will Poulter's Jim Bridger has the moral compass; he's lied to, yet there's an inkling that he wants to believe that they're free of their burden. Facing certain death if he opposes Fitzgerald he begrudgingly concedes, like a mouse befriending a snake in order to keep warm.
The toil, the penetrating profundity, the dark power of vengeance and love with a pulsating reanimating quality; The Revenant left me utterly stunned, stalking out of the cinema in a state of disbelief.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Mark L. Smith & Alejandro González Iñárritu (based in part on the novel by Michael Punke)
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Lukas Haas, Grace Dove, Forrest Goodluck
Tom Hardy ... John Fitzgerald
Leonardo DiCaprio ... Hugh Glass
Domhnall Gleeson ... Andrew Henry
Will Poulter ... Jim Bridger
Forrest Goodluck ... Hawk
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.