Like Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now before it, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a film that may well be defined in future years by the story behind it rather than the finished product itself. A truly mad endeavour that involved mutinous crew members, punishing near-Arctic conditions, and going wildly over-budget, it raises the question of ‘was it all worth it’? For the cast and crew who had to survive a shoot labelled a ‘living hell’, possibly not, but for audiences who can watch it in cushy cinemas, The Revenant is an essential experience that easily ranks amongst the year’s very best films.
Fittingly for a film with such an infamous making-of, the true story upon which The Revenant is based is itself utterly ridiculous. Fur-trapper and mountain man Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) was brutally mauled by a bear, left for dead by his companions, and by sheer stubborn force of will, managed to survive the unforgiving, un-colonised American frontier and drag himself all the way back to civilisation. For the film, the dramatic stakes have been punched up – Glass’ vengeance is now for the murder of his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), rather than the stealing of his rifle – but any divergence from the already near-legendary truth is always for the best.
Glass’ journey through the wilderness is not The Revenant’s only story, as we also follow the rest of his trapping party as they make their way home without him. Headed up by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who feels deeply guilty about abandoning the man who had guided him through so much treacherous terrain, this thread is the only one in the film that allows for extended sequences of dialogue. After the bear attack, the majority of DiCaprio’s screen time is spent silent and alone, with only the majestic and terrifying environment for company. It’s probably DiCaprio’s finest performance to date, having to wordlessly convey the growing desperation and slipping sanity of a man with nothing to live for but revenge. If 2016 isn’t the year in which he finally wins his Oscar, it will be a huge surprise.
Tom Hardy heads up the rest of the cast as the ostensible villain of the piece and does a predictably excellent job as cold-hearted, but not entirely unsympathetic, enforcer John Fitzgerald. Gleeson who, like Hardy, is having a superb 2015, is also great, but it’s Will Poulter as the inexperienced and conflicted Jim Bridger who makes the most memorable impact in support. Ever since Son of Rambo, it’s been clear that Poulter is immensely talented, but his superb work here proves that he’s been woefully under-utilised through much of his career. Inarittu has also assembled a large cast of Native American actors, with a wide variety of different tribes both playing a major role in the trappers’ stories and headlining the film’s third plot of a chief searching for his missing daughter.
Even with some of cinema’s best stars in front of the camera, The Revenant is Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki’s show. Easily the most beautifully shot film this year – Lubezki is surely on track for his third cinematography Oscar in a row – cinema has never mastered the overwhelming power and vastness of nature quite like this. Using luxuriously long takes and solely natural light, Inarittu immerses you into landscapes of frozen desolation, the cold biting through the screen and right into your bones (in an incredibly bold touch, the breath of the characters fogs up the camera lens). For all its barrenness, however, most of The Revenant is absolutely beautiful. You instinctively follow every swoop of the camera in order to catch everything, which makes the precisely deployed 360-degree shots, only used in times of great tension, all the more disorienting.
This beauty is matched by bone-shaking brutality. No sequence exemplifies the balance of serenity and violence found in The Revenant better than its opening. Glass and Hawk are hunting elk in a flooded forest, crystal clear water floating gently around them, before they hear gunshots and yelling. Soon they’re embroiled in a huge battle between the main trapper camp and the Arikari tribe in which scores of men die bloodily and without ceremony. Arrows sail through throats mid-sentence whilst rifle shots echo all around the clearing and you still can’t help but be enraptured by the surroundings. Lubezki’s audacious camera work brings us right into the action, and every fight, chase, or animal encounter is utterly thrilling as a result.
Of these animal encounters, the most talked about has obviously been the bear attack that sets the story in motion. Despite early word of horrible gore, it’s far from notably gruesome, and the same goes for many of The Revenant’s more over-hyped moments, such as DiCaprio eating raw bison or hollowing out a horse for a sleeping bag. That’s not to say that these sequences aren’t involving and sometimes even harrowing (the raw physical power of the grizzly is made very evident), but there’s little in the way of gratuitous violence. Perhaps more consistently striking than the bloodshed is the way dialogue is constantly drowned out by roaring rivers or pouring rain. It’s a subtler way of displaying nature’s might, keeping it very clear that the world of The Revenant is not man’s domain, and that his language therefore carries no currency in this harsh scrabble for survival.
So rarely does a film so completely immerse its audience in such an alien and inhospitable land that, for its incredible scenery alone, The Revenant is a must-see. When said scenery has been captured by the best cinematographer working today and put together into a cohesive film by a brilliant director with Hollywood’s finest acting talent in front of the camera, it firmly lands itself in masterpiece territory. Even better than his remarkable, Best Picture-winning, Birdman from last year, The Revenant proves Iñárritu as one of the premier purveyors of prestige cinema.