The Revenant is not an easy film to watch. It’s a long film that fills countless minutes with silent shots of scenery and sky that might leave many audiences bored due to its deceptively slow pace and lack of action. That all seems part of the experience, however. There’s a kind of poetry to the film, where meaning is gleaned between the lines and action is secondary to context. In this case, context can only be given with the permission of nature. After all, this isn’t a movie about a specific man or even man in general. This is a movie about man’s nature, that indefinable line between savagery and civility, and what either of those things mean.
If you had asked me last year if director Alejandro G. Inarritu could ever top the achievement of his last film, 2014’s Birdman, I would’ve laughed in your face. While the scope of that film was relatively small, it dealt with large issues in a way that belied the rather intimate nature of its design. With The Revenant, Inarritu manages to muse on even larger issues, this time presenting them in an epic scale that positively dwarves all of his previous attempts. To call it stunning would be to barely do it justice.
On the surface, we’re dealing with basically just a revenge flick. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, tracker and guide for an ill-fated hunting expedition that’s forced into retreat after multiple attacks by a native tribe. While trying to lead the team back to an army outpost before the snow comes, he suffers life threatening injuries following a bear attack. When it becomes clear that the team cannot make it back to the fort and bring him with them, the leader of the expedition (Domhnall Gleeson) leaves him with surly survivalist John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and the young Badger (Will Poulter) who promise to look after Hugh until his inevitable death and then give him a proper burial. Anxiety runs high in Fitzgerald, who’s convinced the natives are still tracking them in the woods, and his attempts to put Hugh out of his misery result in the death of Hugh’s son (Forrest Goodluck). Thinking Hugh dead, the two leave their camp for the outpost. Against all odds, Hugh survives and nurses himself back to health in order to track down Fitzgerald to avenge the death of his son.
Written by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith, and based in part on the book by Michael Punke, The Revenant is a meditation on man’s nature and the will to survive masquerading as a sweeping epic period piece. Much has been made in recent weeks regarding the grueling nature of the filmmaking process, which reportedly subjected the cast and crew to dangerous conditions and hypothermic risk. Though the media saturation of these stories might have been overwhelming or obnoxious after a certain point, seeing the results of the work puts things into perspective. It’s hard to appreciate the shots and the ordeal that they must have endured in filming without having seen the movie, but knowing what was done to accomplish what they did makes The Revenant all the more impressive.
DiCaprio doesn’t have to act like he’s about to drown, he’s probably actually about to drown. He’s not just pretending to be shivering in subfreezing snow drifts, he’s risking hypothermia in real life. There’s a dedication to the art of movie making given to The Revenant that’s rarely seen anymore these days. Risks aren’t just taken narratively or technically, these people might actually be in danger.
Thankfully, the cast is such that this merely adds to the overall feel of the movie instead of becoming the reason to see it. Despite almost drowning, despite almost freezing to death, despite the risks involved with filming in so intense a wilderness, DiCaprio is at the top of his game here. While his lack of an Oscar is at this point a meme, he certainly proves his worthiness with this performance. So too does Hardy, who’s an actor of such caliber that it’s easy to mistake him for his roles. As much as the film is Hugh versus John, it almost feels as though DiCaprio and Hardy are pitted against each other as actors, each vying for best performance. Rather than being a hindrance, however, the two play off of each other’s abilities and push the other to greater and greater heights. Witnessing them in action is wondrous to behold, with each of them delivering the performance of their respective careers.
This is all of course punctuated by the direction of Inarritu, who pushes himself as hard (or harder) as he does his actors. Single-shot takes litter the film in scenes of chaotic action, which are then punctuated by discomforting scenes of quieted calm. Or is the other way around? As much as the sweeping shots of mountaintops and valleys might feel like breaks from the madness, they also serve effectively as tension builders. When Hugh isn’t in danger from other people, he’s in danger from nature itself. Everything in this movie is trying its best to stop Hugh on his mission of revenge, and even the quiet solemnity feels, at times, foreboding.
The Revenant is a movie that’s as easy to get lost in as a snow covered mountain. There’s simply no way to oversell the magnificence of the movie; no way to overstate its breathless beauty. This is the art of cinema at its most moving and most impactful. It’s poetry come to life, with every frame presenting a piece to a larger puzzle about man’s capacity for both love and savagery.
The Revenant is now playing in theaters everywhere.