Over the relatively short span of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s storied career, he’s taken audiences on plenty of adventures. Whether it be the triptych of tales in AMORES PERROS, the intersecting global travails of the characters in BABEL, the insular suburban world of 21 GRAMS, or an artist’s struggle for love and acceptance in BIRDMAN, the auteur’s journey has been an exciting one. His latest, THE REVENANT, based on Michael Punke’s novel of the same name, is nothing short of phenomenal. Not only does Iñárritu double down on Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick’s work, he raises the bar with a spellbinding narrative full of gripping visual poetry and resonant emotion. Oh, and Leonard DiCaprio brawls with a bear.
Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is a frontiersman in the 1800s dealing with a traumatic past. Haunted by the callous death of his beloved Native American wife, he pushes on with his mixed-race son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), working as a scout for trappers of the Rocky Mountain Trading Company. After narrowly escaping an attack by Pawnee Indians, the group is dealt another blow when Glass is mauled by a bear. Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) refuses to abandon the ailing patient as they trek forward, so he puts vengeful mercenary John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and young/ naïve Jim Bridgers (Will Poulter) in charge of protecting Glass. However, shenanigans ensue, leading Glass – fueled by revenge, rage and obsession – to become a “revenant,” someone who returns from the dead.
Iñárritu has funneled his artistry into a bruising, gruesome, vivid and haunting western epic. The visual prose of his fully-realized form presents a wild juxtaposition: even with all that freedom to roam, nature feels oppressive, bearing down on and at times crushing our hero’s spirit. He, along with frequent collaborator/ cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, masterfully crafts a breathtakingly expansive playground for the actors. Many of the shots are snagged right before they lose the light – and their risk is our reward. The fluidity of the camera’s movements immediately recalls (but is never reductive of ) Chivo’s work on THE TREE OF LIFE. Credit for Malick’s memorable visual footprint perhaps also goes to his frequent production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West, both of whom turn in brilliant work here. All of it functions incredibly well for the viscerally intense story, as it augments the atmosphere and momentum. The filmmaker also doesn’t abandon his trademarked long takes either – the most impactful being the first act’s raid on the camp.
Hardy and DiCaprio (who, let’s face it, earns the nickname “DiCapri-whoa” here) give career-defining performances filled with grit, gravitas and pathos. Their muscular virility is infectious, coating the picture in raw ferocity. Hardy digs into the complexities of his role like an animal digs into meat. It’s also refreshing to see DiCaprio get his hands dirty. The film goes there. Glass’ smarts and willpower are the main attraction. His back-to-basic survivalist skills are badass: From feeding on rotting animal carcasses, to trapping and noshing on fish (sushi!), to cauterizing his wounds with gun powder, to hollowing out a dead horse to sleep in (a la Luke Skywalker and the Tauntaun). It’d still be my worst nightmare to be left for dead alone in the wilderness, but at least this movie taught me some things.
Seeing DiCaprio and the rest of the actors toil in harsh conditions brings loads of perspective to our real world dramas; you think your life is hard? Try getting attacked by a grizzly, seeing loved ones killed in front of you, fighting your way out of a grave, and hiking for days through brutal snowstorms. Then let’s talk about that jerk boss of yours.
Admittedly, THE REVENANT does have a divisive ending. Is it a happy end note? Is it sad? It’s destined to distinguish your glass-half-empty friends from your glass-half-full ones. It will also out your squeamish pals. Many might find its message rings a little hollow. However, in the end, it leaves you wide awake and invigorated.
4.5 out of 5
THE REVENANT opens in limited release on December 25. It opens wide January 8.