By Matthew McKibben | January 8, 2016
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Writers: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Michael Punke (based in part on the novel by)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is easily one of the best movies of 2015 and a real landmark film of the naturalist and realism genre. While it is long and meditative, it’s also thrilling, thoroughly engaging, and even occasionally humorous.
Set in 1820 somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, The Revenant tells the true(ish) story of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Goodluck), as they help a fur trapping expedition find pelts, while simultaneously helping the group avoid contact with the local native peoples. After a brutal bear attack leaves Hugh Glass severely and seemingly mortally injured, Glass is left for dead by Bridger (Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Hardy), a bitter and world weary fur trapper from Texas. Being very much not dead and very much pissed off at being left for dead (and other things I won’t spoil here), Hugh Glass has to rely on his knowledge of the land and his wits (and maybe a little luck), to make it back to civilization where he can complete his quest for vengeance against those who abandoned him.
Alejandro González Iñárritu drops the viewer immediately into this long ago world and doesn’t really care to hold your hand to bring you up to speed on where you are. That’s a strength of this movie, not a weakness. This isn’t a movie that’s going to beat you over the head with expository world building. You’re just there and you’re expected to keep up. Unless there’s a real reason to do so, I’m generally not a huge fan of long tracking steadicam style shots, as I typically find them distracting from a “hey! look at what I can do” perspective. But here, this technique really works, especially with the first battle scene between the fur trappers and the local Arikara tribe. You’re there seeing this battle unfold from the perspective of the camera, and Iñárritu seamlessly weaves together the continuous cinematography, almost ballet-like battle choreography, and “how did they do that” special effects.
Although Tom Hardy’s performance as John Fitzgerald is anything but subtle, Iñárritu very subtly introduces the tension that will come to define Glass’s and Fitzgerald’s relationship and then gradually builds that fire into something that simmers throughout the course of the movie, even though the two actors don’t share a whole ton of screen time together.
I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about how Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant will finally bring earn him his Oscar (and I agree it will), but that’s really just a shorthanded way of saying just how great his performance really is. This is bravura acting, both in external and internal terms. Leonardo DiCaprio really put his body and physicality into the demands required to first be an expert tracker, and then a man who could believably and realistically survive one of the most brutal on-screen acts of violence this side of Mel Gibson’s The Last Temptation of Christ. The physicality required is impressive enough. But beyond that, he also nailed the internal struggle at play as Leonardo DiCaprio is required to keep that flame of bitterness alive for the better part of 2 long, desolate hours for what was done to him.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is equally as impressive and vital to the story as DiCaprio’s performance. Iñárritu’s dedication to keep things as realistic and as naturalistic as possible can only really work if you’re going to both film and light your movie in ways that seem believable and naturalistic. So there’s not a lot of (if any) artificial light throughout the movie. What you have here are stark, desolate and cold landscapes lit only by campfires and torches. Or when the story calls for it, you’ll have scenes not lit at all as the characters navigate by moonlight.
If there’s one part of the movie that kind of feels somewhat out of place it’s Tom Hardy’s performance as John Fitzgerald. Tom Hardy has built his entire career on the strength of what he’s able to do with his face and his eyes. This movie’s really no different, as he’s buried under a long bushy beard and has to rely on his shifty eyes and expressive face to do much of the heavy dramatic lifting. What isn’t being covered with his face, though, is being covered with Tom Hardy doing his best Platoon era Tom Berenger impression. As a Texan, I’m not sure what to do with Hardy’s almost archetypal Texan accent. Tom Hardy’s performance isn’t bad, but it almost feels like he’s in a different movie than everyone else. I’d like to see a spinoff with Hardy’s Fitzgerald as he traverses the vast Texas plains in search of employment… kind of a Mad Max story by way of Old Yeller.
As with most “naturalist” work, what you get out of it thematically is going to depend on just how much you want to read into what you’re seeing on screen. This movie has depth, but it’s a depth that won’t be handed to you on a silver platter. As a moviegoer in 2016, you’re kind of just dropped into this whole other world that really doesn’t exist anymore. Men and women like this (in this country anyway) are a thing of the distant past. These are men and women who didn’t have time for comforts and easy living. These were people out for personal gain and caught up in a country’s manifest destiny westward. We live in a world now where the conflicts between Native peoples and the invading white expansion were already decided long, long ago, but in this movie, they’re very much just beginning. This movie has no easy answers about the relationship between Native peoples and the whites engaging in exploring (and plundering) the frontier, and barely has any interest in asking the questions at all. It’s more concerned with dropping you into this world and making it as believable and realistic as possible. And on that front, this movie is a resounding thematic success.