IT IS DIFFICULT TO leave a showing of Alejandro Iñárritu’s savage film, The Revenant, without having the feeling that you’ve personally undergone some sort of violent assault.
Of course, that’s nothing compared to the battering frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) endures as he tries to find civilisation in the 800s9th century American wilderness. Man is pitched against nature in this epic revenge tale based on Michael Punke’s embellished take on the legend of the American explorer, in which Glass survives a bloody mauling by a mother grizzly bear only to see his son (Forest Goodluck) murdered and then be left for dead himself by Tom Hardy’s racist, sociopathic trapper John Fitzgerald.
What follows is a ceaseless, 180-minute macho art film in which the ironically-named Glass risks scalping and shooting and starvation in the name of white-hot revenge against the backdrop of an unspoiled Great Plains and a haunting orchestral score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
It is, in effect, a double-chase: a roaming group of Native Americans hunt the white man who kidnapped a woman, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), and because Glass is travelling alone in the wild, he is the most likely to be found; Glass, grieving and angry, hunts Fitzgerald. The wounded Glass, both hunter and hunted, reliant on nature, yet in constant danger from it, moving awkwardly in bear skin, tearing greedily at raw fish and flesh, regresses to an animal state, driven by the very basest of emotions: revenge and the instinct to survive.
The brutality of Glass’s world is juxtaposed with the gorgeous, glorious, snow-covered Great Plains, courtesy of three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki: the landscape, filmed in Alberta, Canada and Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, is as arresting as any gory shot of Glass stuffing gunpowder into a wound in his neck. But to call The Revenant a purely cinematographic triumph, or to reduce it to a standard revenge tale, is to do it a gross injustice: it is equally a suffocating story of the physical difficulties of mere survival at the dawn of the Wild West, in which frostbite or hypothermia may end your life long before a human or animal gets the chance, and a symbolic story about man and nature, civilisation and savagery, death and rebirth.
Iñárritu’s brutal odyssey is riddled with allegory and reference to the spiritual, at times clumsily expressed, which betray his sympathy for the myriad indigenous tribes who struggled to survive French and American occupation in the 1800s. If The Revenant fails at times, it is in this area. The hunter-gatherers of the Pawnee and Ree tribes take on an otherworldly character which borders on the noble savage cliché; the imagery is, at times, almost laughably opaque––memorably during the dream sequence in which Glass sees his murdered son.
DiCaprio remarked following the release of the film that it had included thirty or forty of the toughest sequences of his career. It shows: it is an imperious performance by DiCaprio, whose bloodied Glass looks perpetually to be on the very brink of death as he tries to survive the beautiful and savage landscape of Montana and South Dakota. Meanwhile the impressive Will Poulter, as the young and naive trapper Jim Bridger, quietly steals the scenes he shares with Tom Hardy.
The symbology in The Revenant is at times heavy-handed, and the ideological hand of director Iñárritu oscillates between elevating the narrative and overwhelming it. But in spite of this it is truly a thrilling film, beautifully told, beautifully shot and beautifully acted––in relation to the latter it is no surprise that the real-life suffering of DiCaprio for the artistic vision of his director was rewarded with an Academy Award.
What’s more, and put simply, The Revenant is the best film I have seen in quite some time.