The Revenant is one of those rare films you don’t just experience, but endure at the edge of your seat. It’s as close as most viewers would ever want to come to surviving the wild frontier.
It’s not a flawless film, but the heights Director Alejandro González Iñárritu reaches in tackling such an ambitious project make it easier to appreciate in spite of its deficiencies.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a hunting expedition alongside his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and fellow tracker John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).
The film’s opening sequence featuring an attack by a Native American tribe on the hunters is stunning, recalling some of the all-time best cinematic action scenes like Saving Private Ryan.
Eventually fleeing the attack, Glass and the survivors make the long trek to their camp when Glass is mauled by a bear and left for dead. Like most aspects of the film, the mauling is vividly depicted. The mauling would be enough for sensitive stomachs, but there’s numerous instances of violence and whatever means necessary, including pulling a Luke Skywalker, to survive the elements.
Yet for this unfiltered, gritty glimpse at frontier life, Iñárritu never approaches Tarantino levels of gratuitous violence and gore for the sake of being gratuitously gory. What’s on screen feels like the brutal reality of life during this time.
Holding on to a spark of life more for his need for revenge than his own survival, Glass begins the long, painful journey back to base to avenge those who wronged him.
DiCaprio has been hailed as delivering one of his finest performances to emerge as the Best Actor Oscar frontrunner. Make no mistake, he’s good here, but DiCaprio has been better in The Departed and Romeo + Juliet compared to a role largely asking him to grunt and wheeze for major portions of the film. I found Robert Redford more compelling in his man vs. sea movie All Is Lost.
In truth, the real star of the film is Hardy, who makes Fitzgerald more of a selfish, greedy character as opposed to an outright villain. Fitzgerald is always thinking of his best interests, but not being a particularly shrewd strategist, he has to rely more on his bluster and guile and Hardy strongly conveys that constant sense of desperation.
Unquestionably, this is one of the most spectacular looking films of this generation. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is breathtaking with nearly every scene having some luxurious backdrop and setting. It reaches the point where I came close to taking for granted each subsequent scene was going to feature some sumptuous visuals.
If only the same attention was given to the script, which often feels underdeveloped at best and shaky in other scenes. Adapting Michael Punke’s novel The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, which was based on the true life events, Iñárritu and co-screenwriter Mark Smith fail to provide a comprehensive picture of the characters and their motivations.
Of all the characters, Fitzgerald is the most clearly defined and easy to understand what he’s doing from scene to scene. Others behave as needed to keep the story moving along, which feels like a disservice especially in the case of Will Poulter’s character, the more kindhearted explorer Bridger, and Domhnall Glesson’s expedition organizer Capt. Andrew Henry.
The score is also fantastic and really lends the extra bit of credence that we’re watching an epic masterpiece play out.
This isn’t your standard revenge flick, but more a man vs. the wild, nature and fellow man in order to get payback. Though when it comes time for that final showdown, Iñárritu delivers a satisfying payoff.
At 156 minutes, the film is far too long given its intensity. After a point, the harsh nature of the story becomes somewhat overwhelming. Shaving off a half-hour would certainly help the pacing and not make viewing so challenging.
To fully appreciate all the symbolism and character moments, the film probably needs multiple viewings, but it’s not entertaining enough to truly make it rewarding.
Following a widely adored, multiple Oscar-winner in Birdman seemed daunting but Iñárritu finds another peak to climb. Birdman won four Oscars and it’d be more of an upset if The Revenant didn’t at least match that total.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Kimberely French/20th Century Fox
Want to read the real story behind The Revenant? The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge
History vs. Hollywood has some interesting facts about what the movie got right and got wrong.