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  • Revenant, The | Review

    By | January 8, 2016


    Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

    Writers: Mark L. Smith (screenplay), Alejandro G. Iñárritu (screenplay), Michael Punke (based in part on the novel by)

    Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck

    Love it or hate it, I guarantee you that 2015 did not offer a film any more beautiful than Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant nor will you find a performance any more demanding or devoted than that given by Leonardo DiCaprio. And if I was a betting man, I’d wager 2016 will also not offer up any riches greater in those regards. Ambitious to the point of indulgence, the brutal film will no doubt be divisive to viewing audiences and critics alike. Equal parts extremely violent revenge tale and super-slow paced meditative survivalist saga, it’s a film I loved even if part of me felt it to be something of a beautiful mess.

    Based loosely on a “true” tale, it’s the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), who on an 1820’s fur trapping expedition to the frigid Pacific Northwest, is one of a small number of his band to survive an attack by Arikara Indians only to be soon thereafter viciously mauled by a grizzly bear protecting her cubs (parental protection being a recurring theme of the film). Apparently mortally wounded and greatly slowing his party down on their long cross-country trek back to their fort, he’s left behind to be cared for by two of his party, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and a young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), until his impending death, at which time he’s to receive a proper burial (in reward for which they’ll receive monetary compensation). The only problem is that Fitzgerald, a violent and racist brute of a man, isn’t interested in charitable deeds or concepts of honor. So he soon tricks young Bridger into abandoning a barely still breathing Glass without hesitation. But Glass, whose injuries are beyond extreme, not only manages to survive but miraculously goes on make his way back to the fort.

    His journey involves survival in a harsh winter climate, a trip down dangerous rapids, repeat attacks by the pursuing band of Arikara, whose chief is searching for a daughter kidnapped by white men (in what feels to be an intentional reverse tip of the cap to John Ford’s The Searchers), and a horse ride off a tall cliff. To believe Glass survives all that comes his way, for me, involved a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief. But keep in mind that the definition of revenant is “a person who returns as a spirit after death; ghost.” Glass is a man who has died, if not literally, in spirit, and who is apparently no longer fully bound by human limitations. He’s not driven by a mere hunger to live but by a much stronger drive, the need for retribution. For Fitzgerald’s betrayal goes well beyond abandoning a mortally wounded Glass in the woods.

    The film’s stunning first thirty minutes are undoubtedly my favorite thirty minutes in film in all of 2015. Iñárritu drops the audience directly into the harsh, savage world of the film with no hint of a backstory given and you are immediately immersed in a violent and deadly world of freezing snow, blood, terror and pain. As the Ankira Indians assault Glass and company, initially in an almost supernaturally horror-inducing method, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (for my money, the single biggest star of the production) show off their visual chops, stunning tracking shots following the action as arrows fly and find their mark, gunshots ring out, Indians ride in on horses, flesh is torn, skulls are cracked and blood flows. The tension is palpable and adrenaline-inducing. The survivors escape into the water on their boat, reminding me visually of the boat scene from Apocalypse Now (judging from the stories I’ve read of the difficulties of the production of The Revenant, I can’t help but feel that the two films are spiritually connected). After abandoning the boat and continuing their journey on foot, Glass soon receives his bear mauling, a scene that appears about as intensely brutal and painfully real as possible.

    From there, the pace slows to a meditative crawl for much of near two hours as Glass struggles to survive, sucking the marrow from the bones of long deceased animals, catching a fish with his bare hands and eating it alive, eating raw meat from the remains of a buffalo taken down by wolves, fueling his slow trek across the frozen land in search of retribution. Interspersed throughout are sudden bursts of action (and violence) as he encounters Indians and depraved French frontiersmen, constantly having to battle the beautiful but deadly elements. Here the film opens itself up to charges of dragging on a bit too long at times, although I found myself entranced by every minute of it, before the film finishes with the best use of cringe and anxiety inducing intense violence I’ve seen in years.

    The single biggest complaint that can be made about The Revenant is that it borders on style over substance. There is almost nothing in backstory, very little in character development, and ultimately not even that much in the way of plot development. Instead, the film drops you suddenly and without apology into the world of the film and takes you on a journey. There’s little in the way of mythos building or message conveying. You either embrace the journey or you don’t and you are left to dig for the deeper meanings or not. For me, it works on both levels: simply as a beautiful, brutal, thrilling action tale or as a meditative take on the bonds between parents and children, the relationship between white settlers and Native Americans, the comparisons between the savagery of nature and the savagery of man, the virtues or sins inherent in seeking revenge, etc.The things in your head and heart that you walk into the theater with will for the greater part determine the questions you walk out of the theater pondering and influence which of the countless striking images stick in your head for days after.

    Rating: 9/10

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