Continuing with my aim to have at least seen all of the Best Picture nominees before this year’s Oscars, on Wednesday I went to see the film with the most nominations, The Revenant. I admit that I wasn’t hugely optimistic about the prospect of sitting through this film after the trailer had set the scene of this being a pretty dismal slog. That said, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film.
Alejandro G.Iñárritu’s epic is inspired by the experiences of real life 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who at the film’s start is a fur trapper amongst a party of American settlers. The danger they face couldn’t be made clearer than by the almost immediate, brutal attack by Arikara Native Americans, which brings to the screen some truly incredible, if not graphic scenes. The small group who survive look to their guide, Glass, to find them a safer route back to camp. However, not everyone likes Glass or his son Hawk (whose mother was Native American) as is made clear by John Fitzgerald (an almost unrecognisable Tom Hardy).
The grizzly bear attack is now widely known about and it is this horrific incident (which goes on for quite a long time and is frighteningly realistic) that results in Glass being mauled so badly it seems impossible he’ll survive. Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) cannot bring himself to kill Glass and instead offers money to those willing to stay behind until he dies so that he can be given a proper burial. When one of those volunteers is Fitzgerald you know things will not end well. Events take a tragic turn when he (unbeknownst to the young Bridger (Will Poulter) who has also remained) murders Hawk, with Glass powerless to intervene, before leaving him for dead. Bridger, fearing for his life if he stays reluctantly follows Fitzgerald.
For the next two hours we are observers to Glass’s incredible journey to avenge his son’s murder. Never have I seen a film that captures better the almost inhuman ability of man to face the impossible and find the will to survive. We watch as Glass literally drags himself along, using all his survival skills to keep himself from death (whether from his wounds, the Natives, the Frenchmen in the area, wildlife or the elements). The further he gets on his path, the stronger he becomes and the more his resolve hardens. There seems no question that a showdown between him and Fitzgerald will happen. After all, it’s what Glass is living for.
The story of this film may seem dull to some, but I found this to be an incredibly cinematic experience. This feels as if it’s more than a film (perhaps aided by watching it on a huge IMAX screen). Due to the stunning, wild landscapes (the film mainly being filmed in Canada, including Alberta around Banff National Park) and the directing style of the film there were moments when I could almost believe I was actually there. I understand the director insisted on using natural light rather than electrical light and that choice certainly adds a weight of realism to the film.
This immersive, sensory feeling is thanks to the brilliant work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (surely looking at his third Oscar in a row), who together with director Alejandro G. Iñárritu brings a brutal, visceral, but also visually rich and beautiful film to the screen. In between the violent scenes there are moments in which we watch the sky change colour, the rain start to fall from the clouds and the snow melt off the leaves. It could almost be a nature documentary in these quiet moments. It was this blend of tense action sequences, with calm, tranquil ones that took me the most by surprise and it works brilliantly in breaking up what is quite a bleak story. I would however say the film is too long, but then again by the end you really do feel the length of Glass’s arduous journey, which is perhaps the point.
There are some strong performances as well. Much has been said about whether this will finally earn DiCaprio his Oscar (this is his 5th acting nomination). As someone who thinks he should have won already (The Aviator in 2005 was his year in my opinion), he certainly deserves the award and his performance in The Revenant is worthy of the honour (impressing me in a very different way to Eddie Redmayne’s superb turn in The Danish Girl, a review of which will follow). He carries most of the film on his own, with many scenes having him completely alone, but he needs few words to bring the audience in to Glass’s world (just as well given the raspy voice he has after the bear attack leaves his throat slashed). The level of fitness DiCaprio must have needed is unimaginable, as Glass is both a hugely exhausting role, both physically and emotionally. He brilliantly handles scenes where everything is conveyed in his eyes – pain, despair, anger, loneliness, fear and determination as we watch him suffer horrible injuries, drag himself through the dirt, almost drown, be shot at with arrows by Natives and resort to unimaginable lengths to survive. Bear Grylls seems like an amateur after watching Glass! As an audience you are rooting for him every step of the way, which is all due to DiCaprio’s portrayal.
Tom Hardy is also deservedly nominated for a supporting role and through The Revenant he continues to impress due to his versatility as an actor (right from his early days in Stuart: A Life Backwards for the BBC). His performance as the grizzled, half scalped, cold and self-serving Fitzgerald is impressive and believable. This is a man who puts himself before all others no matter the cost (which is almost understandable in this dangerous, unforgiving land) and you certainly see why characters such as Bridger are scared of him and what he is capable of. It’s such a complete performance; not just in terms of appearance, but the lilt of his gruff, often almost unintelligible voice, his posture and his ability to speak volumes with few words. I loved the moment you know he has realised Glass is alive and no doubt coming after him. It may be one of this man’s first real moments of fear in his life and it shows.
Praise also needs to go to Will Poulter as Bridger, whose character is caught between doing the honourable thing and his fear of death. He may go along with leaving Glass, but you never really blame him. He faces an impossible choice for someone so young and clearly intimidated by Fitzgerald.
The mood of the film is also greatly enhanced by a fine score by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (with Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner). It is a powerful, haunting and rich soundscape that captures the essence of the period in which the story is set and well as the rugged beauty of the wilderness.
Overall I really did enjoy The Revenant. It is truly a cinematic experience and although used too often in my view, a film which truly deserves to be called an epic. It is hugely ambitious in scope, but its director, cast and crew deliver with its action, emotion and its superb way of capturing the natural beauty of the setting. There certainly aren’t many films made like The Revenant these days. You may not think it is your kind of film, but I definite urge you to see it, especially on the big screen.
The Revenant is on general release across the UK. View the trailer here.