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Review: The Revenant

January 20, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The Revenant PosterThe question of how far you would go to survive and get revenge on those who killed your family is constantly at the forefront of The Revenant, a brutal survival drama that unfolds with sequences of terrifying carnage, and moments of haunting beauty.

The film is inspired by the true story of fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), and takes place during an expedition with a group of hunters in 1821.  Tensions rise after most of their men are killed during a brutal battle with a group of Native Americans, who are trying to find their kidnapped daughter.

Leader Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) orders the men to hide their trappings and return to their base in the wilderness.  This order doesn’t sit well with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a man who seethes jealousy and greed and is just waiting for the first opportunity to pull rank, and sees Glass as the only thing standing between him and being next in command.

When Glass is viciously attacked by a bear, Fitzgerald and the young Bridger (Will Poulter) are offered payment to stay behind with him, and provide a proper burial when the time comes.  But Fitzgerald instead takes advantage of his helplessness and essentially buries Glass alive, after murdering his half-Native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) right in front of him, and leaves him for dead.  Despite his ripped skin and broken bones, he pulls himself out of the ground and rises again, with only the resources around him to survive, determined not to give himself over to death until he finds vengeance.

Following the single take magic trick that was Birdman, director Alejandro G. Inarittu has delivered a film that is in many ways even more ambitious, an epic piece of work that captures both the beauty and dangers of the natural world, with an impressive amount of scale that I’ve never seen before.  Shooting in sub-zero temperatures in rural Alberta, and using only natural light or candles, the authenticity of The Revenant shines through in every scene, successfully depicting what it would have really been like for the frontiersman of the 1800s, in gritty and tactical detail.

First and foremost, this is a breathtaking visual experience, and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is spectacular, astounding both in the grandeur of the battle sequences and sometimes surreal beauty of the quieter scenes.  We sense the depth of the encompassing tree line spanning across the horizon, and feel the humbling beauty of seeing an aurora borealis swirl above our heads, as the film impressively captures the full scope of the environment.  Perfectly composed shots of the expansive landscapes portray the majestic, untamed beauty of the surrounding wilderness, and the images often recall the work of Terrence Malick in how they are perfectly attuned to the natural world.

The film uses panoramic spins to allow pivotal scenes to unfold in unbroken single takes, showing us things from multiple angles and helping us become completely invested in this world.  The film takes off like a shot right off the bat, opening with a brutal battle involving arrows that appear to whoosh right past our heads, as the spinning camera works almost like virtual reality to transport us right into the action.  Then there’s the much talked about bear attack, which acts as an inciting incident to the story, and the entire sequence is a stunning feat of visual effects, a vicious battle as it were between man and beast, that terrifies while at the same time making it impossible to look away.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a fiercely committed performance, putting himself through the physical ringer to portray a character who will do anything to postpone death and avenge the killing of his son.  Every pained facial expression and moment of struggle is felt through his performance, as he brilliantly reveals the equally trying internal struggle that is happening behind the obvious physical one.  Tom Hardy is intense and often terrifying in a growling portrayal of pure evil, almost unrecognizable behind his scars and shaggy hair, in another staggering transformation from the actor.  Forrest Goodluck, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter all deliver impressive and equally memorable supporting work.

The film is also refreshingly respectful of Native American culture.  The indigenous characters here are never shown as the heavily stereotyped “savages” many films have unfortunately depicted them as, but rather as people just trying to survive and make a living, as their land, resources and entire culture are being literally stolen out from under them.  The film confronts colonialism in some really interesting ways, with Hugh Glass representing sort of a bridge between two cultures, a man who not only has personal connections because of his late wife (Grace Dove) and son, but also in how he faces betrayal from his own people and in turn receives help from the Natives.

Although the narrative might seem pretty straightforward at first, it’s deceptively simple.  The film is filled with religious metaphors and spiritual undertones, including moments of mysticism in the second half that have an almost lyrical quality.  The story of Hugh Glass is used to represent a rebirth of sorts, with the title of The Revenant literally meaning “one who has come back from the dead,” and these ideas of rising again and second comings have obvious Christian significance.

Spanning an epic 157 minute running time, The Revenant works as a classic revenge tale that puts a unique perspective on the many westerns that have come before it, a film that is gripping to watch for its intense depictions of survival at all costs, affectively transporting us back to the wilderness of the 1820s, and all that entails.  This is a bold, brutal and sometimes hauntingly beautiful piece of work that is made to be experienced as we watch it unfold, and is equally hard to shake afterwards.

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