Review: The Revenant

"The Revenant" is an incredible experience. It is an elegantly simple film, forgoing narrative complexity without sacrificing compelling storytelling. Its central struggle - survival - is brutally and believably realized. In each element of the film, a lonely isolation lingers. We can't help but hope against such stacked odds. "The Revenant" is unflinchingly oppressive, thoroughly exhausting, and unquestionably gripping. This is one of the best films of the year.

The film opens with a surprise attack by Native Americans on a band of fur trappers. Only a dozen or so survive, among them navigator Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Glass, the most experienced among them and fearful of another ambush down-river, convinces the expedition's captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) to abandon their boat (and thus, their ability to transport their prized pelts) and make the return trek on foot, a decision that infuriates veteran trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).

Slowly the small band of survivors make their way back to camp. While hunting one morning, Glass disturbs a group of grizzly bear cubs and is instantly set upon by their mother. The trappers attempt to transport him on a make-shift stretcher until the terrain proves too difficult. Fitzgerald insists the captain end Glass' suffering, but he instead offers a reward to any volunteers who remain with Glass until his death. Hawk, the young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and Fitzgerald accept. Glass stubbornly clings to life. Fitzgerald grows impatient and, once alone, attempts to suffocate Glass. He is discovered by Hawk. Desperate, Fitzgerald stabs him to death. After lying to Bridger that a native attack is imminent, he half-buries Glass in a shallow grave and departs. Bridger, terrified and helpless, follows.

Of course, Glass survives. "The Revenant" is at its core a survival story. The film truly begins when Glass drags himself out of that grave. The remainder of the movie follows his recovery and long journey to Fort Union, where he intends to avenge Hawk and kill Fitzgerald.

Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: Leo deserves the Oscar. His riveting performance is absolutely central to "The Revenant."  This movie does not work if we don't believe in and care about Hugh Glass. This is not a wordy movie; DiCaprio has very few spoken lines, requiring him to convey nearly everything with his face and body. The range he displays without the benefit of dialogue is simply incredible. His pain is cringe inducing, his heartbreak is real. He commits so completely to the physicality of the role that for much of the film DiCaprio is invisible.

If anyone else in this film deserves an Oscar, it's Tom Hardy. Hardy is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. His Fitzgerald is coldly self-interested. His speech is succinct and unsettling. He convinces himself that he's just doing what needs to be done, that he's a good man. Maybe he was once.

The cruelty of Glass' ordeal is juxtaposed against the beauty with which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures it. There are hints of his work on "Birdman" in the camera's seamless glide through action, sometimes seemingly in one shot. Lubezki's camera seems to treat the abundance of cruelty and suffering in "The Revenant" with the same harsh indifference that the 1823 frontier gives Glass. The bear attack sequence goes on for minutes; it feels like we should look away, but the camera lingers apathetically. When an injured Glass dives into a frigid river or limps half-frozen across a snowy plain, the camera puts his suffering into nature's perspective with awe-inspiring wide-shots often not even centered on Glass. The starkness of the film is made even more visceral by Lubezki's use of entirely natural lightning, bringing each already-gorgeous shot to life.

I was also struck by how well this film evokes loneliness. The script is sparse; Glass rarely speaks after dragging himself from death. The brilliant score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is a reflection of Glass' lonely journey, slowly moving a few notes before yielding to the whispers of a lonely wind. The vast landscapes are incredibly beautiful but unfeeling and isolating; when you can see to the horizon, you can see just how alone you are.

And yet, despite its intimacy, "The Revenant" is one of the most thrilling movies I've seen recently. The film has a baseline tensity of general unease and has a number of scenes that left me positively white-knuckled. This is the first film I've seen where the audience audibly cringed - repeatedly! The final twenty minutes of the film are edge-of-your-seat intense and unforgettable.

I wasn't the biggest fan of director Alejandro Iñárritu's "Birdman;" I enjoyed it but had a stronger reaction to other Oscar contenders that year. With "The Revenant," Iñárritu has won me over. This is a must-see film.

Score: 5/5

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