Oscars Season: The Revenant


The Revenant is a feat of the human spirit and pushes the boundaries of possibility, both in its subject matter and its production. A year on from his Oscar victory for Birdman, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has somehow outdone himself, gathering a stellar cast of actors and subjecting them to some of the harshest of conditions and climates to create a sensory thrill ride that plumbs the very depths of humanity and the overwhelming power of nature. I have never felt as physically exhausted and emotionally drained from a film.

We follow a group of fur traders fleeing from an encroaching army of Native Americans when Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is attacked by a bear and abandoned by the others, leaving him on the brink of death and seeking revenge. The majority of the running time is spent with Glass, as he attempts to survive the harsh American winter and escape from both the French and Native American armies. It is also interesting to note that the film is loosely based on a true story.

The Revenant takes a heavy risk by focusing so much on one actor and his physical capabilities. Thankfully, DiCaprio was the perfect choice for the role, giving an utterly sensational performance in an incredibly challenging role that carries the whole film and serves as the emotional core of the story. This is the most physical performance from an actor in years (DiCaprio barely speaks a word throughout the 2 and a half hour running time) and one of the most revelatory too. 

The realism of the character is truly brought to life by DiCaprio, with every tumble and tear carrying a wince-inducing impact and having very real repercussions for Glass. For a large portion of the Revenant, Glass is heavily wounded and deformed, the type of character that rarely forms the center of a film. But DiCaprio's grit and determination means we are soon rooting for him every second of the way. 

Enter Tom Hardy who, as the savage and sullen John Fitzgerald, provides the perfect counterpoint to Glass. Convincing the others to abandon their wounded comrade, Hardy delivers a strong and increasingly brutal performance that sways between animus and psychotic almost as convincingly as Glass. The presences of Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter provide strong support, with the latter (known for distinctly lukewarm films such as The Maze Runner and We're the Millers) particularly impressing in a tough role as the increasingly embattled Bridger. 

Director Inarritu has once again proven his superiority within his trade alongside much lauded cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, known for his work on Gravity and Birdman, who work wonders behind the camera. The camerawork is often claustrophobic, wrapped tightly around DiCaprio and exploring the pain that he suffers, before pulling back to accentuate the extremity of his situation or the striking visceral power of the environment. 

The beauty of the snowy landscapes, ranging from thick, mysterious forests to towering alpine peaks, is captured in jaw-dropping style, with shots ranging from aerial descents that emphasise the sheer scale of the landscape to minute details such as a tiny colony of ants, some of the most impressive scene-setting ever captured on film.

Of course, nature takes its toll too, evidenced most emphatically by the vicious bear attack. The CGI used is incredibly lifelike and completely convincing throughout. Though brilliant when used, the minimal use of such CGI is refreshing to see and allows the brutal realism of the film to be maintained throughout. Clearly, the key word of the Revenant is realism, with battle scars deeply set and wounds, both physical and emotional, never forgotten.

The opening battle is especially stunning in its fluidity, as it follows one character to his demise before following his killer and so on. The camera moves from a sprint to horseback to underwater all in one seemingly seamless take, similarly to Birdman, and it is one of the many extraordinary details that make the Revenant one of the most immersive films to date. The other highlight of note is the score, composed by Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, which conveys the raw emotion of the tale through the lush, pulsing strings and intense, throbbing percussion.

On paper, the project could have been a complete disaster. $65 million over budget by the end of shooting, increasingly hazardous shoots and intense conditions, the ambitious decision to shoot chronologically and the firing of multiple crew members all indicated that Inarritu's ambition had finally met its match. Not so. This is a masterpiece in film-making and a triumph against all odds. In fact, The Revenant isn't even a film. It's an experience.