Art film meets survival story in The Revenant, the latest effort by Alejandro González Iñárritu, last year’s Academy Award winning writer and director of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.) This is one of the most brutal and beautiful films you are likely to ever see and one of the best movies of the past year.
Based loosely on the Michael Punke book by the same name, this film embellishes and further expands on the legend of Hugh Glass, the 19th century mountain man who was brutally mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead, but managed to claw his way back to life and spent years trying to get revenge on those that left him behind.
The story of Hugh Glass first saw the big screen in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness with Richard Harris, but The Revenant is more of a re-envisioning of the Glass legend rather than a remake of that old film; and Iñárritu takes us places that the seventies’ filmmakers could only dream about.
The tale is simple enough: Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), are scouts for a band of beaver trappers, but while avoiding hostile natives our hero is attacked by a very big bear, mortally wounded and left to die alone in the freezing wilderness winter.
Miraculously, Glass fights his way back to life, driven by his desire to get revenge on John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), the men who stole his weapon, killed his son and left him half covered in a shallow grave.
As uncomplicated as the plot sounds, Iñárritu incorporates it with a dazzling array of visual symbolism that explores what could be the American pioneer’s version of Purgatory. It is this high art on the Upper Missouri that will leave you thinking about its metaphorical meaning for days after you have seen it.
This is also one of the most intense films I’ve seen in a long time and the grizzly attack may do for camping what Jaws did for swimming. I can’t remember the last time I was that close to the edge of my seat in a movie theater.
The Revenant’s intensity is matched by the gorgeous artistry of its cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who brings his genius for ultra-long takes and dizzying 360-degree camera tricks to the great outdoors. Like with his work on both Gravity and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), I can barely imagine the tedious complexity and choreography involved with planning these shots, let alone actually being able to pull them off so successfully.
The acting in this film is excellent across the board and not enough can be said about DiCaprio’s performance. He had to have gone through Hell making this movie and I can’t imagine that he won’t pick up an Oscar for his efforts. Tom Hardy also does an insanely good job playing the object of Glass’ hatred. You will undoubtedly hate him too.
The Revenant reportedly had one of the longest and most difficult and rigorous shoots in cinema history, and the result makes it very easy to believe. This is easily one of the greatest survival pictures ever made and maybe the best. I can’t wait to see where Iñárritu takes us next. Grade: 9/10
Photos © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox