And with a swirl of promotion, that contained Oscar hysteria for Leo Dicaprio, hyperbole about the extreme filming style and a ludicrous amount of rumour involving bear-on-man rape (look it up), The Revenant wearily trudged into our lives with a fixed scowl, a beard frozen solid with snot and inhuman levels of rugged determination. Much has been made of the rather muscular directing style employed by Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu, involving the whole film to be shot in completely natural light in somewhat ungodly and uncomfortable conditions and to be fair, it’s all fairly justified. Gobsmacking natural landscapes frame brutal acts of animalistic survival and there is so much freezing snow on show here I’m tempted to suggest you pack a thermos whenever you watch it to avoid dying of exposure in the middle of your living room.
It’s 1823 and frontiersman Hugh Glass is hired to lead trappers through the hostile tundra-like Dakotas with his half-Pawnee son Hawk but the expedition is attacked by a rampaging Arikara war tribe who thoroughly wipe out the vast majority of the group. Narrowly escaping by boat, the survivors look to Hugh to get them back safe but yet another setback rears it’s head when Glass is inconveniently mauled by a bear the size of station wagon. Partially shredded, yet stubbornly clinging to life, Hugh’s less than perfect outing gets even worse when supremely shifty trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy channeling Buffalo Bill) insists on mercy-killing him and murders his son when he violently disagrees. So begins a legendary journey as Glass endures such inhuman trails are clawing his way out of a shallow grave, questionable self-surgery, devastating cold and a hallucinatory journey across the American plains where almost everything seems to want to kill him. As Glass flat out refuses to expire until his burning desire for vengence is sated he aims his near supernatural determination toward civilisation – can he possibly achieve his murderous aim and even if he can, then what?
The Revenant really is chiefly a directors film as a standard script and story barely get a look-in as important elements are told purely in a visual language in long, incredible and often wordless unbroken shots by Iñárritu’s roving and probing camera. An early attack by Native Americans and the harrowing bear attack (employing some of the best natural looking CGI I’ve ever seen) are all contained in a single shot without a single regular edit and cinematography this complex in landscapes this insanely difficult to film in are more than enough reason to catch this movie on the biggest screen you can (see if you can get yourself one the size of a large shed for best results).
Thankfully, in contrast to the strong visuals, the central performances are more than strong enough to register. Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson (showing so many impressive acting colours over the last couple of years he’s becoming more of a chameleon than his old man) give flesh and dimention to usually what would be emptier roles while Tom Hardy deals out his trademark brand of mush-mouthed, brutish villainy as the swarthy pre-partly scalped scumbag of the film.
But whether deserved or not, it’s DiCaprio that all eyes will be decidedly locked on to due to the fact that this was his fifth – and finally successful – crack at that little golden statue. In fact at the time the debate was in danger of overshadowing his performance somewhat what with many voicing their opinion that the actor’s turn in The Wolf Of Wall Street is far superior. So is this a great performance? Yes, undoubtedly so, but I feel that even if you dumped Rob Schnieder in those kinds of conditions, you’d still get a believable performance of sheer, abject suffering because it seems no actual acting would be required. Still, credit were credit is due, Leo puts himself through genuinely impressive amounts of below zero indignities for his craft; whether scoffing raw fish waist deep in a freezing river (this film has SO many people in so many rivers!) or going full Hoth on a horse carcass (animal lovers might wanna give this a wide perimeter) he earns his nomination through sheer grit alone.
Ultimately this is a film where mere words are a moot point, The Revenant is an imersive experience that is so total it verges on gives 3D a bloody nose and it stands proudly alongside Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto as one of the few art-house movies that could easily double up as an epic action movie.
Complaints may have been aimed at it’s fuzzy timeline (the film obviously takes place over a couple of months at least but plays a hell of a lot quicker) which gives DiCaprio the illusion of X-Men level healing powers which enables him to shrug off being a grizzy’s chew toy in record time, not to mention the scoff inducing gunpowder employed self surgery that comes right out of Rambo 3. Other complaints may touch on the rather episodic and random nature of the story (you can’t help but feel that everyone’s traveling round in one massive circle) but in this case you can’t spell episodic without epic.
This is a worthy feat of film making that deserves to be seen on the big screen where it’s gorgeous images will wrap around you like an uncomfortable freezing blanket.