The Revenant

January, 2016, Drama

The Revenant

In The Revenant, Mexican-born Alejandro Iñárritu (in-yar-ree-too), who directed last year’s slyly enigmatic Birdman), introduces audiences to an especially turbulent  chapter of American frontier history in this blood-drenched tale of betrayal, death and retribution set in the early 1800’s when fur trappers combed the rivers and streams in the northwest portion what would later become the western United States. The film is based on actual events in the life of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) a guide who was critically wounded while scouting for a group of fur trappers eager to get their beaver pelts through territory hotly contested by roving bands of Indians.

Visually compelling and intensely emotional from its opening scenes, Revenant has generated Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor and Supporting Actor along with those to be awarded for cinematography, editing,  sound, musical score, production and set design, costumes and makeup, making this one of the most talked-about movies of the year. Yet setting aside the notoriety induced by the violent savagery of its images and Revenant’s astounding visual beauty, is the movie’s underlying content worthy of such lavish attention?

After barely surviving a gruesome mauling delivered by a grizzly bear, the leader of Glass’ hunting party  tends to the man’s wounds and selects 3 men to stay behind, promising them a sizable financial reward for either bringing the desperately injured Glass back alive, or arranging for a decent burial in the event of his death. Glass’ teenage son Hawk and another young man named Bridger quickly agree to this offer, along with an older, contentious trapper named Tom Fitzpatrick (Tom Hardy) whose constant sniping at Glass’ decisions suggest  the former’s deep-seated, malevolent fear. Shortly after the rest of the party moves on, Fitzpatrick argues that Glass faces certain death and should be left to his own fate rather than risk the lives of those who’ve stayed behind. When his companions refuse, Fitzpatrick lures Bridger away from their campsite, kills Hawk, buries Glass alive and then tells Bridger that Glass is dead and Hawk has run off. The two survivors then hurry to rejoin the rest of their party, leaving Glass to his fate.

When he miraculously recovers sufficiently to drag himself from his shallow grave, Glass faces overwhelming physical and emotional odds; crushed by the death of his son, without food or weapons and barely able to crawl, Glass fashions a crutch, finds Bridger’s discarded canteen  and sets off in the bitter cold of deep winter to hunt Fitzgerald down. What follows is a lyrically told story of pursuit and retribution under unimaginably brutal conditions, captured brilliantly by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and accompanied by the hypnotically mesmerizing tones of Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto score that subliminally evoke the Asian heritage of Native Americans.

DiCaprio delivers a career-best performance as the beleaguered Glass. Employing perfectly fashioned makeup, he uses an impressive array of facial features to wordlessly depict a man painfully suffering from the simultaneous impact physical injury, emotional loss and the grinding oppression of the elements. This six-time Oscar nominee may finally receive a statuette this time even as his portrayal is artistically matched by that of Hardy as the murderously cunning Fitzpatrick. Cynically manipulating anyone who stands in the way of collecting his promised reward and stifling Bridger’s belated efforts to come to terms with what they’ve done, Hardy’s villain is frighteningly compelling. The actor was seen earlier this year in Mad Max: TheWasteland, another Oscar nominated Best Picture contender. His work in this film easily surpasses his performance in that one, which can best be described as a live-action science fiction cartoon. Screenwriter Mark Smith and Iñárritu provide him with dialogue that Hardy  employs to craft a portrait of a desperate man in such need of self-justification that he can rationalize his actions as both necessary and moral. Let’s hope this role provides this gifted British actor with future opportunities worthy of his considerable talents.

While Revenant is visually gorgeous and emotionally compelling, does this two and a half hour exercise in brilliant filmmaking really deliver anything more than an evocatively crafted tale of graphic murder and revenge? In such previous films as 21 Grams, Babel and Buitiful, Iñárritu delivered intimate portraits of characters that faced complex issues dealing with how we occupy our planet collectively while dealing with each other individually. And while DiCaprio’s suffering in Revenant is rivetingly depicted, what does it tell audiences about themselves that they didn’t already know? The director’s oeuvre offers ample evidence of an incisive mind and the creative willingness to challenge viewers with tales that balance emotionally resonant story-telling with ample intellectual challenge. Revenant excels in delivering the former while ignoring the latter, making this otherwise magisterial film feel uncomfortably close to an exercise in eye-popping physical gruesomeness set amidst boundless natural beauty.

The Verdict? The most perfectly gorgeous and cringingly bloody shaggy-dog movie you’re ever likely to see.

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