“You have to listen.”
I honestly cannot recall the last time I saw a film and asked myself so many times, often aloud, “how did they do that?” The Revenant, when strictly gleaned from the definition of its title, is a revisionist Western take on the story of Lazarus. A man returned, risen from the dead. And it certainly has the ugliness of the leper’s wounds to coincide. But what floored me about this film was how viciously it chisels its way into our personal sentiments and sense of compassion. This is a history lesson, traversing the stark landscapes of The Louisiana Purchase with the French and the Indians and the frontiersmen. Each group rallying together through their own rendition of “This Land is Our Land” with stern belief. There’s a morality story present though too. One that carefully dissects the difference between right and wrong before discarding the revelation and acting on pure animalistic – or survivalist – instincts. The Revenant is long, and arduous, and at times even painstakingly merciless. And I loved every single minute of it.
In spite of leaving details of the time and place roughly vague, The Revenant always feels finite. As if this is a real blip of our race’s storied and ever-evolving existence sprawling across the screen. The picture is vast, the details astute, and the presence intrusively inviting. We trek alongside these men. Based on true events, the film tells the savage journey of tracker Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). He’s the father of Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), himself a mix of Caucasian and Indian from his deceased mother. Glass’ relationship was elicit, and because of that a tribe attacks the group in search of the Chief’s daughter, assuming that she may be with them. The frontiersman gathering pelts are led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) who earned the position through fortune. Henry trusts Glass’ expertise with the land, but John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) thinks otherwise. He wants his pelts, and his money, and none of the trouble that comes from having a young Indian make the trip back to the fort with them.
Glass and Fitzgerald are both men at the end of their ropes, polar opposites to their worn down boots, and while treacherous in length, The Revenant justifies every second of its runtime by somehow always building and moving one foot in front of the other. In one of the year’s most metaphoric and insanely violent sequences, Glass is separated from the pack and mauled by a bear protecting its cubs. He survives, one way or another, and becomes an anchor holding back the rest of the men with his near dead weight. Glass lies there, helpless, and as is still all too common today, people – or in this case Fitzgerald – take advantage of a situation when they know they have the upperhand. The result is Glass alone in the wilderness, on the brink of death, seething more from internal pain than his external wounds to avenge the wrongs he endured. The Revenant laughs in the face of a god while also acknowledging a higher power. Because of this, with its grim exterior and its literally weathered atmosphere, the movie creates an isolating igloo that’s consolatory through somewhat superstitiously defined individuals. The bad aren’t evil, the good aren’t great, and the story unearths our intrinsically flawed nature spurred by the elements, thus causing us to spurn the elements in return. Storytelling of this sort is uncommonly found.
Through Emmanuel Lubezki’s lens (he’s also know as Chivo), a masterful cinematographer changing the way that we capture film in the 21st Century, director Alejandro González Iñárritu manages to tell an intimate story of fatherhood and loss in a grandeur setting. The Revenant can only fully be appreciated when you know all of the details. The cast rehearsed for months. Most days they could only film for an hour and a half before they were done. That’s because they shot in uncharted territories in subzero temperatures and only used natural lighting. Think about that when you watch this picture. Recognize how much planning, staging, and choreography had to take place. Iñárritu is one of our very best filmmakers, and while he has never made a bad movie, his most impressive attribute is his daring demeanor. He’ll dig, and crawl, and scratch his way into the fundamentals of the story he wants to tell. Then, as a director should, he distributes the work and mans the helm. It’s almost bullying and unfair to the rest of the industry when he teams up with Chivo. More than any film this year, The Revenant puts us right there with the characters. I felt the cold, the anguish, the hunger and thirst. To know that men actually lived this while I sat with my feet kicked up was both humbling and uplifting. Few movies have ever shown mankind’s ability to adapt or die through such controlled chaos.
Once again, Tom Hardy gives a riveting supporting performance. He is the closest thing our generation has to Marlon Brando, which is about the highest compliment one can give an actor. Fitzgerald may seem nefarious, but Hardy gives him layers through his delivery, so we understand that he has been through hell and back. He’s as integral to the film as Leo. DiCaprio is challenged more though, and with this role the beyond talented performer defines what it is to act. Some read that and automatically think showy dialogue and scripted monologues. Acting is organic, done with the face and the body, and since he has so few spoken lines DiCaprio is forced to connect and confide in his audience through an unmatched physical performance. It was brave to take this role, and in a thin lead actor field this year, it would be a crime for him to not bring home every award for which he is nominated. If you couldn’t tell, I could go on about this movie forever, so let me say just one thing. How this film exists is beyond my comprehension. All I can be sure of is that I adored its ambition, its honesty, and its humanity dressed in the inhumane. The Revenant is definitive cinema.
“As long as you can still grab a breath, keep fighting.”
Rating: 5 out of 5