The Revenant is a feat of strength, a relentless story of pure willpower. Almost all of it is filmed in the wild, with natural lighting. The violence is in a way too realistic to actually be realistic, if that can be understood. By the end I was exhausted. In fact I was silently pleading with the movie to end at least ten minutes before it did. I was quite literally squirming in my seat. Despite this, there is no denying it is an incredible production worthy of recommendation.
Below contains minor spoilers.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a fur-trapper, tracker and the guide for a trapper expedition. After the group is attacked by Native Americans, Glass is then mauled by a bear during their retreat, and eventually left for dead. The film is based on a true story, though no such disclaimer appears at the start. There is not even a “In 1823…” so and so were at odds, etc. This adds to a certain sense of timelessness, though this might just be me feeling those old woods and mountains.
One of the first shots of The Revenant is of a clear stream, the camera slowly following it upwards. It’s refreshing, natural. Then the camera pans up and a strange landscape is revealed: a forest of thick trees with the ground covered by water, the stream having overflowed its banks. I was at once struck by the eerieness. The calm stream slowly drowning the forest floor. The setting is the constant, silent antagonist. The natural wonders of the region are, with little contest from the battered actors, the most beautiful thing about The Revenant. Most of all, from my European perspective, the absolute vastness of the American wilderness is on full display. The wilderness does not, however, strike me as menacing, but simply awe-inspiring. Glass himself is struck by the beauty of nature a few times in the film, even though the cold and terrain are his obstacles. His long journey and his constant fighting off death (or returning from death if you read the title literally) approaches ridiculousness. In fact I heard more than a few chuckles of incredulity from the audience near the end.
The photography in general is very beautiful. Alejandro Iñárritu’s love of the long take is firmly established. Long takes in movies can sometimes be distracting in my opinion. There comes a point in every long take when I go from being one with the action to being cognizant of observing a trick. Iñárritu’s Birdman managed to punch through that and come out on the other side again. The Revenant has a few long takes, but when I noticed them, they only reinforced the movie’s effect. The feat of strength is not just a story, it was a reality for everyone involved. Story and production became one in my mind. Every time a character jumped into an icy cold river, my sympathy extended to the actor (even with my hope of a hidden wetsuit).
All the actors portray the exhausting journey very well. It can sometimes be difficult to watch, especially the close-ups of Glass’ enraged face. I will say I’m not a fan of the framing used throughout the film of putting the face in close-up on the left side of the screen.The right side is rarely used at all during these scenes so the framing just sort of sticks out oddly. That aside, the emotions run high and everyone is at the top of their game. Domhnall Gleeson (currently also General Hux in Star Wars) continues to engage. Tom Hardy makes his character Fitzgerald very fascinating: a mix of bravado, cowardice, strength, desperation and darkness. Does DiCaprio deserve an Oscar? Impossible to say, as I’ve yet to see all the nominated performances. But if pressed, I’m not sure if I’d pick this film as his absolute best.
I can’t say I “enjoyed” the film. I was physically uncomfortable through large portions of it. Apart from the ending, which felt a bit drawn out, I never could look completely away however. I’m not a huge fan of the close-up framing, the editing in the beginning felt a bit off (a shot here and there left sort of dangling), and there are a few oddities in Glass’ dream sequences I’d love to delve into (why was there a shot of Fitzgerald’s past? The confusion between dream and flashbacks wasn’t really effective or engaging) but all in all it is a great film. Engaging, impossible at times, relentless, disturbing and beautiful.
Dice roll: 5