As it heaves its way around the awards circuit, it is easy to be caught up in the critical response and marketing machine behind The Revenant at this moment. An ambitious project filmed in sub-zero temperatures and in limited light, it is being sold as the penultimate endurance test for both actor and director. And while it is mildly irritating that we lament over the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio had to stop being vegetarian to eat raw liver in the wilderness, its plaudits are definitely warranted. It is a mammoth, snarling beast of a film.
Set in 1823, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is a revenge thriller based in the inhospitable wilderness of uncharted Northern America. Inspired by a true story, it follows legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he traverses a world unbound by civilisation. However, on one particular trip Glass is caught in a terrible accident. Mauled by a bear in one of the most brutal scenes of man versus beast ever seen on screen, Glass is left torn and beaten to a pulp. Shredded apart and bleeding, he is found by his frontiersman team, only to be deemed too weak to be carried the vast distance home. Left to rot, Glass musters the strength to drag himself through snow and ice on a quest to find those who abandoned him.
The grunt of this film comes in many forms. Visually, it’s a brutal, visceral construction of a film. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is bold to say the least, the camera moving deftly through the Wintery landscape with behaviour somewhere between erratic and composed. An early scene of a bloody ambush in which the camera appears as just another body running from the violence comes to mind. Yet while he does action very well, Lubezki’s frames offer beautiful moments of contemplation. His images of the harsh outdoors capture the wonderful warmth of midday sun and the bitterly cold night. There’s also something mesmerising about orange flecks of a campfire against the teal backdrop of night or the sun gleaming through a droplet of melting snow.
Yet Lubezki and Iñárritu do not allow themselves to get preoccupied with the beauty (or maybe chaos) of nature. They know that their acting talent provide a beating heart to this raw and beautiful film, and they do everything to bring that out. Indeed, there are some terrific performances. Will Poulter and Domnhall Gleeson both act with weariness and move with a sense of madness provoked in them by their ordeals. Also, Tom Hardy gives a stern, masculine performance, genuinely shivering with menace.
This is DiCaprio’s film though, and if anything will win him that elusive Oscar it is this performance. With few lines of dialogue, his performance is a tour de force. Through tears, blood and sheer-wide eyed anger, his depiction of Glass is one of absolute suffering. For long periods of silence, he is an endlessly watchable character that teeters on the edge of insanity. The centre of this wild animal of a film, he holds the story with perfect poise and deep expression.
After the success of Birdman , Iñárritu has pushed a crew and cast to make another immense giant of a film. A wonderfully simple yet cinematically eye-dropping revenge thriller, The Revenant is a stunning spectacle. A world without law and order, its characters live in unforgiving territory and lead unforgiving lives. It is a formidable piece of cinema.