Writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu has become known as a filmmaker who has the ability to tackle personal stories with grit unlike any other. His three-time Academy Award winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) clearly resonated with both industry folk and audiences alike. While I generally liked the film, it was far from the best feature of last year. Nevertheless, he displayed that he is a strong talent that deserves our attention and excitement. Based in part on the novel by the same name, his newest film is a survival revenge story titled The Revenant that takes a gritty arthouse film to the next level.
Set in the 1820s, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is on the run with his fellow men to safety after barely surviving an ambush. When he's mauled by a bear, he's on the brink of death. However, when John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and co. leave him for dead, Glass sets out on a path of revenge. Fighting against weather and other dangerous obstacles, he must continue to push forward to have the possibility of survival.
While The Revenant has its quiet moments, the film maintains a violent and tense tone that rarely lets up. This can be seen from the opening sequence, as our lead's home is completely destroyed. Glass and a few of his fellow men barely escape death, as the land that they leave behind is covered in the corpses of their family and friends. This acts as an introduction to a brutal world where mercy is hard to come by. There's a clear tension that stands between Glass and Fitzgerald from the onset, which continues to escalate little by little. When Glass is in no condition to keep moving forward, Fitzgerald and a couple other men stay behind to take care of him. This is when we begin to question who we can trust. Those with sinister motivations are not hard to pick out, but the character interactions are quite interesting. However, most of the arcs are a bit too barebones for my liking. Glass has a clear one that ends in a way that allows for our own perspective to determine the tone, but unfortunately, this doesn't hold true for all of the character progressions.
Alejandro González Iñárritu has certainly delivered audiences one of the most shocking scenes of the year in the form of a bear mauling. It's a lengthy sequence that deserves every second of screen time that it has. Glass fights for his life, as a bear rips into his flesh with its claws and teeth. This major turning point in the plot had me sitting at the edge of my seat in shock. The stakes have already been established by this point, but now they have become even more serious. They are being tracked by the very same group of individuals who slaughtered their people, and now, the man who saved them all is barely gripping onto life. When he's inevitably left for dead, the audience feels just as defeated. The Revenant deals with survival in a way that is much more hard-hitting than it is in other films. Just as things finally begin looking positive, nature and humanity get in the way once again. Glass' perspective becomes one that truly immerses the audience.
Those who are expecting The Revenant to be cinema's next big mainstream action western flick may be disappointed. Its arthouse approach will be appreciated by some, and rejected by others. While there's a lot going on, it's not necessarily a fast moving revenge film. It can more appropriately be considered to be visual poetry. There are entire segments with Glass' grunting being the only "dialogue" for quite some time. While the plot is important, the symbolism of every grueling step of this journey is king. This is what makes this feature something worth repeat viewings, as one would likely get something new out of it with each re-watch. By the time the credits are rolling, you're sure to have conflicting emotions. You're extremely likely to have a different perspective regarding your feelings towards Glass and his journey than your friend, as The Revenant certainly changes depending upon one's point-of-view.
If nothing else, this will be considered to be Leonardo DiCaprio's shot at the Oscar for Best Lead Actor. While there isn't a whole lot of dialogue going on, he makes this endurance test truly difficult to get through in the role of Hugh Glass. Of course, I mean this in the best way possible. DiCaprio makes us care for the character, and often feel every moment of agonizing physical and emotional pain through his eyes and body language. Tom Hardy delivers a fitting performance as John Fitzgerald. He plays a despicable character in a way that makes us hate every fiber of his being. Meanwhile, worthwhile supporting performances from Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter are quite strong. There isn't a single weak performance here, giving this world a real sense of legitimacy.
The film's strongest asset is certainly its visual style. Alejandro González Iñárritu has created a picture that consistently took my breath away. His use of traditional lighting is astonishing, as the colors resemble those of a brilliant piece of art. His use of framing is incredibly meaningful, as much of the story is told through the visual structure, rather than dialogue or the actions themselves. Much of the film looks insanely natural, although there are some moments where CGI was the only option, such as the bear mauling. Nevertheless, these sequences fit into the overall look quite well, as they simply blend into the atmosphere with ease. The score adds to the emotional stakes, as it builds in a way that enhances the cinematic experience without pulling us out of it. This is the sign of a successful score.
There isn't a doubt in my mind that The Revenant is a good film, but I didn't quite find it to be great. The visuals are gorgeous, the acting is superb, and Glass' initial characterization is quite strong. However, the character arcs are lacking, as they don't represent much of a grey area. We're supposed to like Hugh Glass and hate John Fitzgerald, but the supporting roles display a much greater sense of conflict with morality. While it's certainly stylized and intense, the overall plot structure displays a revenge story that we've seen way too many times before. Even so, Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant has delivered something special that shocks the senses. Those who have the stomach for it should definitely check it out. Highly recommended!