Brutal, barbaric, bonkers, beautiful and brilliant, Alejandro Iñárritu’s latest effort is all of this and more. With The Revenant, Iñárritu has crafted an elegantly yet violent tale of revenge set in America’s rugged north in the winter of 1823. In development for more than 10 years with various other directors attached before Iñárritu signed on – including Australia’s John Hillcoat – The Revenant is drawn in part from Michael Punke’s book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, a tome apparently inspired by the experiences of frontier fur trapper Hugh Glass. Regardless of whether or not Glass did, in fact, endure the physical and psychological punishment endured by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant and lived to tell the tale, it is certainly one of the most hellish stories of survival ever to make its way to the big screen. I mean, Aron Ralston slicing off his own arm pales in comparison to what Glass endures in his determination to exact revenge on those who left him for dead. Whilst Iñárritu and co-writer Mark Smith have taken some artistic licence in their adaptation (although we have no way of knowing how accurate Punke’s book or Glass’s own versions of events are anyway), they have delivered a story that, whilst seemingly beyond the realms of reality at times, is riveting and richly redolent of a time and place in which conflict and violence was a way of life for those eking out a livelihood in an unforgiving wilderness.
The film opens with a battle scene every bit as evocative and visually confronting as the beach scene that launches Saving Private Ryan when Glass’s hunting party is ambushed by a tribe a Native Americans – the Arikara – who are searching for the kidnapped daughter of the tribal chief. A significant number of the trappers are killed and the remainder flee on a boat, which is subsequently abandoned downriver when the group – led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) – decides to continue their journey on foot. The much-talked-about bear attack comes quite early in the piece and, with Glass severely injured as a result, their progress is compromised. When Henry offers a cash incentive for anybody willing to stay and tend to Glass, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) remain behind. It is when Fitzgerald, as much a cliché as any villain before him, leaves Glass to die that an epic journey of courage, determination and revenge is set in motion. Amid breathtaking scenery captured in all its magnificence by master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Glass battles every conceivable hardship, both human and environmental, in his bid to survive.
Even though for much of the film Glass is alone in the wilderness, it is a powerful, primal performance from DiCaprio, who captivates despite the absence of any dialogue for long stretches. Glass’s survival amid all manner of degradations does come with its share of ‘as if’ moments as our protagonist endures a physical battering that is relentless. The film juxtaposes the splendor and serenity of the pristine natural environment with the barbarity and bloodshed of the human interactions that take place within it. Fitzgerald is a particularly loathsome character and Hardy offers us no inkling of anything remotely redemptive in his actions and attitude. As the captain of the group, Gleeson is much better here than his unintentionally comic performance as a much more nefarious leader in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Henry is a righteous man whose authority is very much on tenterhooks in a world where loyalty and trust mean little if there is a better offer on the table.
Iñárritu has the rare distinction of having never made a bad film and with this epic period drama, the Spanish director continues his remarkable record. Shot sequentially in remote wilderness in Canada and Argentina using only natural light – a decision that limited the amount of time available to film each day – and minimal special effects, The Revenant is a powerful study of human endurance, desperation and isolation. Some may find the robust, overwhelming physicality of Glass’s journey difficult to endure as there are many acts of savagery that he must overcome on his single-minded quest for vengeance, but this is a truly cinematic piece of film making from one our finest contemporary directors.