By Tom Platt. As it is with every adventure story built on a verbal retelling, the blanks get filled in with embellished detail. But if the adventure is enrapturing enough, no matter whose version you hear, the core of that story will always remain true. So here’s one: back in the 1800’s a group of men were on a fur trapping expedition when Hugh Glass was brutally mauled by a bear. Desperately clinging to life, he was left in the care of two men who, for dubious reasons, decided to leave Glass for dead. Astoundingly, with little to no supplies, Glass crawled and hobbled his battered body across upwards of 200 miles of wilderness back to civilization in hopes of exacting revenge on the men who left him behind.
Like an old pioneer story told over a roaring fire, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant follows Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, as he claws his way through temperatures too cold for snow, and rivers too swift for ice in this most brutal of epics. Along his vengeful journey against the man who abandoned him, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), DiCaprio fights death and madness as Iñárritu reprises the poetic philosophies and fever dream trances of his 2010 film Biutiful.
It’s these fever dreams alongside a series of tertiary characters that add depth to a plotline so fine that a 160 minute runtime may sound superfluous. Because of Iñárritu’s brief inclusion of ancillary characters, the saga is streamlined some for its inferring audience, there only for us to grab what information we need in order to better supplement the long journey. It never once becomes arduous. Iñárritu’s intention gives just enough to corroborate his retelling.
Fighting harsh, as well as reportedly uncooperative conditions, The Revenant not only went over budget, but earned the nickname “The Foreverant” from its cast and crew. Shot chronologically with an initially 80+ day shooting schedule, the film took nearly 9 months to complete principal photography partly due to the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki’s insistence on shooting with only natural light. The camera work stands as a bridge between the film’s airy, Terrence Malick-esque philosophy and the ruggedness that punctuates its pace. With the floating shots this team is well known for (see Birdman), the audience flies from extreme close-ups, to riding on horseback, and then back to a proximity that carries such intensity that the breath of the actors fogs the lens, as if to remind us that the only heat in this world comes from the struggle for life.
Iñárritu covers this very linear story with a heavy layer of metaphor that, even if the audience doesn’t understand it right away, gives the characters a sense of purpose. Told primarily through the film’s surreal dream sequences, the mental weight on Glass is never more apparent than the moment when we stand with him at the bottom of a pile of skulls, staring bone-weary at a small red flag on top. A representation of struggle where so many others have failed? Or perhaps a suggestion towards his life and misdeeds as a trapper? We as the audience, through the onslaught of these dreams, begin to understand that the most physically brutal act done to this man is also the most forgivable. It is not the wild that terrifies Hugh Glass, but the men closing in around him.
The most wonderful part of The Revenant is that it’s not exactly an unfamiliar place for Iñárritu. Much like Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Iñárritu appears to be finding a stride in knowing what he wants to do, and trusting that will, in the end, be genuinely of himself. With the massive leeway given to the recent Oscar winner, he has taken the resources he’s been fighting for his entire career and — instead of becoming overwhelmed by a budget that was six times that of Birdman — Iñárritu simply tells a more daring story in a way that is entirely his own. While we so often complain about the present state of the studio-made film, The Revenant offers us a Hollywood picture, given over as high art.
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Produced by Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, David Kanter, Mary Parent, James W. Skotchdopole, and Keith Redmon.
Screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Based on ‘The Revenant’ by Michael Punke.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Will Poulter.
8.5 out of 10