When you watch The Revenant at least one of many things are bound to happen to you.
Either you’ll be reaching out for a warm jacket, or you’ll think of canceling that outdoor trip to Canada. Your romanticized notion of winter, where you get to wear fashionable winter wear and strut about will be liquefied. You’ll also wonder how a bear can be CGI’d so accurately, and you’ll also probably wonder how the hell the film crew managed to finish shooting the film without killing each other.
If you’ve seen any of his previous films you’ll know that Alejandro Inarritu’s vision is absolutely uncompromising. The Revenant, therefore, is not just a film but a demonstration of how far the filmmaker can go visually. Every frame in the film can be printed out, framed and hung on a wall. The atmosphere built into the film is brutal enough to permeate from the screen.
The icy terrain is claustrophobic and at times frightening – it reminds you that looking at such landscapes from a distance makes for a pretty picture but getting into it will kill you. As Leonardo DiCaprio bleeds and crawls, grunting in pain through the snow encrusted forests and freezing rivers you’ll be sure never to wish this ignominy even upon your worst enemy. The vision is at the forefront of The Revenant.
Everything else, however, takes a back seat. The story, though loosely based on a real life incident is a simple revenge tale. Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), after being mauled by a bear in a jungle and left for dead by his companions crawls back to the city to return the favor. There’s no deeper subtext within the film, even though visually the film poses to present something deeper. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera often floats around, shuttling between a Terrence Malick scene where the sun peaks out in the distance, to a Tarkovsky shot that refuses to cut as chaos reigns everywhere. Whatever you see is breathtaking for sure, but the film doesn’t really say anything about the human condition, even though the camerawork attempts to.
The lone message the film actually renders is done quite unsubtly – that the white man came to America, raped and pillaged the Native Americans and stripped away the land’s peace and innocence. DiCaprio’s character is Bollywoodised to the highest degree, where he is the lone white man siding with the Natives to the point of having a family with them. This is a far cry from Inarritu’s previous films which said a lot without too many filmmaking tools – in fact it’s the reverse here – this time he has infinite tools and yet says so little.
DiCaprio spends most of his time in agony, being angry, hungry and thirsty. The Oscar buzz is well deserved because he does it all without any dialogue. But it’s impossible to ignore that his character is written to a limited degree, so you don’t get really much more than those four aforementioned aspects. Leo has delivered far more nuanced and boisterous performances in the past, so he makes this one look easy.
What is more interesting is the character of John Fitzgerald played to grizzly perfection by Tom Hardy. The actor, in a frizzled shaggy beard, unevenly shaved head, dirty teeth and mumbly grunts just disappears into his role to the point of being unrecognizable. His character has a lot more depth that DiCaprio’s – he isn’t a cardboard villain being bad for the sake of being evil – he’s a mercenary who just wants to get back home, and carrying around a guy who’s been mauled by a bear and is going to die anyway doesn’t seem logical. He takes a decision that may not be morally glorious but it’s something of a necessity in a very harsh terrain.
Speaking of the bear, it’s difficult to pin point where the practical effects begin and the CGI ends – the whole sequence is as stunning as it is seamless, and it’s definitely not for the faint hearted. It’s the only point in the movie where the filmmaker’s ambition matches the execution, and one wishes the finale were as powerful as this scene.