A film review by Craig J. Koban January 18, 2016

RANK: 2

THE REVENANT jjjj
 

2015, R, 156 mins.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass  /  Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald  /  Will Poulter as Jim Bridger  /  Domhnall Gleeson as Andrew Henry  /  Paul Anderson as Anderson  /  Brad Carter as Johnnie  /  Kristoffer Joner as Murphy  /  Brendan Fletcher as Fryman  /  Joshua Burge as Stubby Bill  /  Robert Moloney as Dave Chapman

Directed by Alejandro González Ińárritu  /  Written by Ińárritu, Mark L. Smith, and  Michael Punke

As both a meditative commentary on the nature of obsessively seeking revenge and a powerfully rendered outdoor survival thriller, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s THE REVENANT is clearly in a class all by itself.  

The recent Oscar winning director (for BIRDMAN) has returned with his sixth film, this time fully exploring the harsh extremes of an oppressively hostile wilderness and how that adds fuel to the emotional fires of men that wish to do harm to one another.  Very few films have so thoroughly captured the outdoors in all of its foreboding beauty and naturalistically dangerous intensity as THE REVENANT has, which allows for it – during a majority of its two and a half hours – to feel so threateningly immersive as a primal filmgoing experience.  It’s a positively riveting saga of one steadfastly determined man seeking ultimate comeuppance against another that has wronged him. 

Inarritu poses simple, but ageless themes and questions in this film: What extremes would you be willing to go through to seek revenge?  Does the unendingly painful ordeal of ravaging your body through unspeakable environmental hardships justify such actions?  The film’s title is relevant to such a discussion – the word “revenant” references a corpse that has been returned to life from the grave to torment living souls.  THE REVENANT is a fictionalized account of frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass, an early 19th Century man that survived being viciously attacked by a bear, was left for dead, and then traveled across over 200 miles of harsh and uncompromising wilderness to safety.  The film uses that fact-based story as a springboard for its larger tale of vengeance, giving him even further palpable reasons to stay alive in order to confront the men that left him to die.  THE REVENANT is an incredibly exhaustive experience to sit through, but it’s to Inarritu’s esteemed credit that he meticulously crafts such a remarkable visual odyssey that’s filled with indelible sequences that captures nature at its best and worst. 

 

 

The film opens in the early 1800’s and introduces us to Hugh (Leonardo DiCaprio), an exemplary tracker that spends most of his days with his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) tending to the needs of a squad of fur traders through the unforgivable wild.  The regiment in question is led by Andrew (Domhnall Gleeson, proving here as he did in EX MACHINA and BROOKLYN that he's such a more finely understated and effective actor than he was recently in THE FORCE AWAKENS), but the group also has a nefarious member in it in Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a soul so twitchy and twisted that it's pretty clear, right form the beginning, that this man is only in it for himself.  When the regiment gets attacked by a rampaging tribe of Pawnee (looking for one of their lost own), the men all try to regroup in the wild, but when Hugh is attacked by a bear and nearly torn in half, the realization of their dreadful situation becomes more apparent.  The dying Hugh is left under Fitzgerald’s care, but he predictably buries him in a shallow grave and leaves him for dead.  Miraculously, Hugh survives and begins an arduously long journey not only towards recovering from his wounds, but also trekking across hundreds of miles of cold and deadly terrain to seek out Fitzgerald and make him answer for his crimes. 

Every modern action filmmaker should step up to the table and bare witness to what Inarritu has achieved in THE REVENANT.  The aforementioned opening sequence between the trappers and the Pawnee – all done with long and smooth single takes and impeccably choreographed swirling camera pans – is a tour de force of technical filmmaking craft.  In an era when far too many directors engage in hyperactive editorial overkill, watching Inarritu give a thoroughly authentic and palpably barbaric bit of man versus man chaos – with the utmost clarity and precision - is undeniably refreshing and awe-inspiring.  Then there’s the sequence where Hugh is mauled by the bear that’s just trying to protect her young, also done with one long unbroken take.  I’ve rarely seen such a marriage of cutting edge visual effects, live action elements and natural terrain done with such shocking veracity.  We’ve seen countless animal attack sequences in the movies, but what Inarritu has achieved here is one of the most astoundingly realized sequences of the movies; it’s more nerve-wrackingly terrifying than dozens upon dozens of perfunctory torture porn scenes in recent slasher horror films.   

It could easily be argued that nature itself is the cruelest enemy of THE REVENANT.  Inarritu wisely re-teamed up with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whom previously won much deserved Oscars for GRAVITY and BIRDMAN and also worked on five of Terrence Malick’s most recent films, and the manner that he shoots THE REVENANT and captures the outdoor locations as both places of subtle beauty and inhospitable dangers is quite grand to behold.  Whether it be in grandiose panoramic shots or moments with a haunting dreamlike aura or instances of showing the punishing levels of the frigid, snow covered extremes that pummel the film’s characters into submission, THE REVENANT makes you feel like you are a part of its environment through and through.  Lubezki has won two previous Oscars in a row, and he’s surely on the path to receiving a third for his superlative and painterly work with the camera here. 

On top of being a masterful film on a level of production artifice and design, Inarritu thankfully doesn’t forget about the human element either.  DiCaprio has given so many multiple performances of ferocious commitment before, but what he has achieved here in THE REVENANT is a whole other realm of thespian immersion.  Not only does he capture the psychological toll of someone that must deal with appeasing his insatiable thirst for revenge, but he also staggeringly conveys an internal fortitude of a soul desperately trying to survive through physical pain and external obstacles that would kill just about any other man.  We sense every aching bit of Hugh’s pain as he struggles through indescribably horrific ordeals – both mental and physical – and DiCaprio has the difficult task conveying most of that in a largely non-verbal performance.  DiCaprio’s Oscar caliber work is complimented by the always-towering presence of Tom Hardy, who inhabits a man of such deep maliciousness and cruelty that, like all great movie villains, never fully understands that his actions are purely evil.  The dynamic tandem of DiCaprio and Hardy is the mesmerizing underscore to the thematic notions man’s putrid inhumanity towards man that’s at the heart of THE REVENANT.  

THE REVENANT is a methodical and merciless gut punch to the senses.  By the time it reaches its breathlessly exhilarating final sections I began to fully realize that it's an all-encompassing and majestic achievement for Inarritu.   Some have criticized the film for being light on story, but it's more about being an unforgettable visceral experience at the movies that ethereally transports viewers to a different time and place.  Like, say, this past year’s MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, THE REVENANT is an exercise in simple storytelling economy, to be sure, but it reigns supremely in terms of being an impactful bit of escapism done with a headstrong confidence, astonishing filmmaking craft, and tenacious pacing.  It’s a film that reminds viewers of the transformative power of the movies to make us forget our theatrical surroundings for two plus hours and instead fully inhabit the worlds presented on screen.  Equally dazzling and horrific, THE REVENANT is a spellbinding and tortuous tale of guts, anguish, intestinal fortitude, and the dicey relativism of savage eye-for-an-eye frontier justice.  You may not like what you see in the film, but it will stay with you for an awfully long time after watching it.  That much is clear.

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