At times trying and immersive, concise and confounding, expansive and painfully introspective, The Revenant treats film as high art and demands that the audience join the journey. For those willing to take the ride,the film-going experience becomes a live-action, I-Max like visit. The camera swoops, sweeps and expands to show the vast wilderness with a clarity that hits all of the senses. You can almost feel the chill in the air, you can almost smell the damp ground, taste the bitter water.
Inspired by real events, the story follows Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and showcases his unflinching, undying quest for survival and vengeance. Hugh works with a group of fur pelt collectors in the expansive American northwest in the 1800s. Every day is a test of stamina as the group faces the elements, nature’s beasts and marauding American Indians, French armies and rogue pelters. Unlike most period films where the viewer’s experience is removed from that of the people onscreen, The Revenant utilizes the immediacy of each situation, breaking through time barriers making the viewer long for resolve as much as the actors. During a brutal hand battle the camera dives and jolts as arrows are slung, axes are wielded and ancient guns are fired. Tension rises for the viewers, as the perspective is amidst the action, not viewed from outside of it. This tension doesn’t relent throughout the film as we fight to survive with DiCaprio’s Glass. There is little dialog for DiCaprio to work with but his character has a deep history, a strong constitution and his intense performance radiates with every eye twitch, grunt and pained step that the actor takes.
Glass struggles against beast in an epic, glorious, but incredibly gory bear attack sequence. He struggles against man, from his archetypal foil in Tom Hardy‘s John Fitzgerald to myriad armies and enemies he encounters. He fights nature as he wills to breathe through the coldest, longest nights imaginable. Finally he fights himself as he is haunted by dreams and memories and continually refuels his drive to avenge the lives of his family.
DiCaprio’s work is nothing short of stunning. He is almost unrecognizable as his very soul appears consumed by this role. Tom Hardy is also deeply saturated in his role as he continues his impressive career track of chameleon-like work. Another stand out performance comes courtesy of Domhnall Gleeson. He is torn by his pull to protect himself and his men, and to save Glass’s life. Gleeson excels at playing a conflicted simpleton and this, alongside his strong performances in Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, allude to a strong future for him. Will Poulter holds his own with this ultra experienced, powerhouse cast. He plays Jim Bridger, the youngest and most innocent in the party. He has noble intent but doesn’t trust his instinct. As the moral compass of the group, he is easily out-witted and his pain radiates through the screen.
The narrative is dreamlike in its cadence. The story flows and then transgresses into memory, dream. There are segments that allude to the Native American traditions of spirits and the earth talking. These diversions from traditional story-telling techniques will be a turn-off for film viewers who prefer to be spoon fed, but are a rare and welcome treat to those who like to mine through stories to find their treasures. Another masterful story-telling technique is to alternate from small, tight shots of the group to shots that pan hundreds of meters above the group. In the close up you are thrust in the scene with them. You feel their tensions. Should we leave him? Should we hide? If no one knows what I have done will I still be held responsible for it? Once you feel about to implode from the pressure of the situation the camera pulls back further and further until you realize that these characters worlds and realities are but a tiny spot in the vast universe around them.
This film begs to be seen on the big screen. It is deserving of an uninterrupted, unspoiled viewing. One will remember the surround sound of the terrorist rain, unrelenting. Every inch of the screen filling with a macro close-up and then emptying to an endless, non-tamable terrain. At a whopping 2 hour and 36 minute running time, audiences need to be prepared for a wallop of a commitment that will transcend their wildest ideas of what this film can be.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Writer: Mark L. Smith
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Lukas Haas
Running time: 156 minutes
Release date: January 8, 2015