Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sprawling 19th century western epic is well on its way to cinemas. The Revenant comes a little over a year after the success of the director’s award-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and serves as a strong closing feat to 2015’s stellar year (along with a few other anticipated titles you may have heard of). For Iñárritu, his cast and crew, and the studios backing the ambitious feature, it’s taken literal blood, sweat and tears to bring this enthralling blood-soaked thriller to the forefront. The acclaimed director’s distinct vision clashed with nature’s uncompromising presence, which led to unexpected production delays and last-minute location changes, but also one superb piece of cinema.
But at the end of the day, there are many who are asking one thing, “Will this be the one to finally earn Leo an overdue Oscar?” It’s a valid question – one that I’ve been asking myself for quite some time. But after experiencing – because one does not simply watch – The Revenant, it’s about a whole lot more than Leo’s stake in the awards season. There are several moving parts to this and each one demands recognition.
The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio as legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass, who grapples with man, beast and nature in order to not only survive, but find solace in an unforgiving world. Navigating a team of fur trappers through the rough Upper Missouri landscape, Glass and his son Hawk contend with hostile Indians fighting to reclaim what’s theirs. Ambushed by the natives, Glass’s crew is forced to abandon ship and relinquish their haul, a decision that doesn’t bode well with the group’s outspoken miscreant John Fitzgerald, played by the ever-impressive Tom Hardy.
Tragedy strikes when Glass falls prey to a savage bear attack. Barely escaping with his life, he’s unable to move on with his crew. Hawk, Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) opt to stay behind and see his death to the end, but Fitzgerald has other plans, killing Glass’s son and leaving him for dead. What ensues is a no-holds-barred, gut-wrenching quest for vengeance and self-discovery.
If you’ve read anything about the film’s production, you’re aware of just how grueling it was for the cast and crew. And it translates onto the silver screen with no mercy. The Revenant steers away from Birdman‘s wordy intellect and pummels its viewers with a physical journey that challenges our senses. Dialogue gives way to grunts, cries, and palpable expressions of pain and agony. Iñárritu doesn’t want you to watch – he demands that you live in this world every single second of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. He’s challenging the current landscape of Hollywood, where high-budget original features are increasingly becoming endangered species. The Revenant offers as much intensity as tentpole blockbusters, but on a refreshingly intimate level.
Then there’s Iñárritu’s right hand, Emmanuel Lubezki, who picked up consecutive Academy Awards for Best Cinematography for his work on Gravity (2013) and Birdman (2014). He explores vast, snow-laden landscapes and contrasts them with up-close portraits of The Revenant‘s major players. It’s more of what we’ve come to expect from Lubezki – a man who exemplifies the brilliance of 360-degree cinematography – but the result is more intense, fearless and at times, exhausting.
The much-hyped bear attack is as ruthless as it gets – a cinematic feat in its own right. Iñárritu and Lubezki don’t shy away from the grotesque scene, keeping the focus on every grizzly scratch, bite and tackle. The scene isn’t easy to watch. You won’t enjoy it, but you will respect the tenacity, the commitment. I thought I’d seen it all with Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry, this year’s wholly underrated horror film about a couple’s fatal encounter with a predatory black bear, but The Revenant takes it a step further, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performances. Tom Hardy seals a three-peat (Fury Road, Legend) with another defining performance. He’s cruel, callous, and quite frankly, a dirty fucking bastard, which are the greatest accolades to be given to his character. He steps up in light of DiCaprio’s minimal dialogue, cementing Fitzgerald as one of this year’s most detestable antagonists. And Leo shines. Man, does he fucking shine. A devout vegetarian, he fully immerses himself into the role of Hugh Glass. Leo devours raw bison, sleeps in animal carcasses and succumbs to nature’s conditions without question. For an actor whose success has been defined by long-winded roles, The Revenant is Leo at his most vulnerable state. His undeniable commitment to Glass is paralleled by his performance, which serves as a crucial realignment to what everyone expects.
I’ll be honest, it isn’t easy. It doesn’t accommodate its viewers. Iñárritu expects your undivided attention. The Revenant‘s a marathon, one that issues harsh challenges, but even greater rewards. There’s no time for intellectual thought, just raw emotional responses to a courageously inventive and compelling contender for Film of the Year. The Revenant isn’t the movie you may have wanted, but it’s the one we’ve all needed.
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox