Based on Michael Punke’s novel, The Revenant is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s epic tale of Western revenge; taking us deep into the American wilderness, and in so doing, to the very heart of the country’s folklore.
The story of Hugh Glass is a tale told through the generations. A real-life fur-trapper, attacked by a bear and left for dead by his companions out near the Missouri river in 1820s Dakota. Like many a great folk story, the point where truth ends and myth takes over is entirely unclear, the legend evolving on each telling.
It matters not a jot to the film, which delivers so much to enjoy in a masterclass of visual and physical story-telling.
Much had been reported about the gruelling nature of the shoot, of the testing conditions put upon the actors and crew, not least on leading man Leonardo DiCaprio. And it’s the gruelling, harsh nature which ultimately defines this tale of survival and vengeance.
Visually the film is stunning, and seen on the imposing screen of an IMAX theatre, breath-taking in its scope.
Iñárritu claimed an Oscar 12 months ago for the ambitiously shot Birdman. In The Revenant, he re-teams with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to deliver a landscape so immersive that you find yourself almost shivering in the snow, or arching your neck at the endless sky. Ingeniously creating a landscape as beautiful as it is brutal, the scenery never ceases to drive the narrative, an indelible character in its own right.
As for the human characters, there’s as much to be admired. Tom Hardy revels as the cold-hearted trapper, Fitzgerald, cast into the role of villain. But this is a world where old morals are struggling to come to terms with new realities, his villainy often born out of cold pragmatism and his own survival instincts.
By contrast there is the arrow-straight Captain Henry, played to wonderfully conflicted effect by Domnhall Gleason while Will Poulter proves a genuine star in the making as the naïve, wide-eyed and often horrified young trapper, Bridger.
But this is DiCaprio’s film.
As Glass he is put through the ringer, and then some, overcoming horrific injuries, setbacks, murders, chases and the natural elements on one of the more intense, gruelling depictions of wilderness survival you’ll ever see.
The money shot is the bear attack which acts as the catalyst for the events in the film. Seamlessly blending CGI and live action it’s a deliberately prolonged scene of visceral horror that’ll leave you squirming and squinting, shifting in your seat on awkwardly clenched buttocks.
But this is just the start of Glass’ troubles. Left to die alone in the wilderness, we watch him endure unbearable harshness; struggling to recuperate as the bitter winter comes in, starving, feverish and with the added problem of a Native war party out for their own bit of retribution. A brilliantly juxtaposed side-story which could have been a film in its own right; the two narratives interspersing at brief but crucial moments.
If there is any misstep at all, it’s within the dream-like sequences of Glass’ wife and son. Akin to similarly awkward moments in Gladiator, they offer a near lazy notion of Native spirituality that seems at odds with the rather noble and more reality based depictions of the differing tribes elsewhere in the film. Thankfully they appear only in passing and do little to undermine what is a compelling and epic adventure.
It’s not for the faint-hearted, The Revenant offers an unashamed slog through to the bitter end. In many ways a typical Western, replete with a final showdown, which, with a grim sense of inevitability, proves to be every bit as gruesome as the rest of the movie. And yet, for all the unrelenting physicality, the final message on the dehumanising effect and ultimate folly of a life bent on revenge is delivered through a brief second of defiant dialogue that cuts sharper than any blade or bear’s claws.