Alejandro Inarritu's The Revenant (2015) continues the long tradition of Oscar-winning features that may eventually be overshadowed by their own awards: it earned Inarritu his second Best Director statue in a row, and Leonardo DiCaprio his first Best Actor win after three previous nominations. Saddled with that vague "Inspired by True Events" tagline that tricks almost no one and annoys history buffs, this brutal tale of survival against near-impossible odds is as bleak and uncompromising as any film in recent memory. Stuck in development hell for nearly 15 years, earlier versions of The Revenant were attached to the likes of producer Akiva Goldsman, directors Chan-wook Park and John Hillcoat, and actors Samuel L. Jackson and Christian Bale, none of whom were involved in the finished product.
Perhaps the only real constant during the film's long, twisting development was its source material: Michael Punke's The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge (2002), whose rights were acquired by Goldsman before it was even published. Both the book and film follow real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a man of many talents: fur trapper, scout, sharpshooter, and survivalist, part of a large team of men seeking their fortune through the lucrative fur trade in 1820s South Daktota. Glass' team, led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina), is massacred by a group of Arikara Native Americans; only ten are left out of 45 including Glass, his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Captain Henry, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road), and Jim Bridges (Will Poulter). Pursued by the Arikara ("Ree") and forced to take an alternate route to Fort Kiowa 200 miles away, as well as abandon their valuable animal pelts, the team suffers another massive setback when Glass is brutally mauled by a grizzly bear.
Split nearly in half by their allegiances (Captain Henry insists they carry him along, while Fitzgerald would rather lighten their load), the less experienced Hawk and Bridges volunteer to stay with the near-comatose Glass until everyone else returns with help; surprisingly enough, Fitzgerald also agrees to stay, under direct orders from Captain Henry to give him a proper burial if and when the time comes. Of course, it doesn't take a great deal of foresight to realize Fitzgerald's true intentions...and before long, one of his teammates is killed and Glass is prematurely left for dead.
So begins The Revenant's tale of survival against near-impossible odds: Glass crawls until he can walk, and walks until he can run, all the while hiding from Ree warriors and eating what he can catch (and, in one memorable sequence, pulling a Tauntan trick from Return of the Jedi). His determination, naturally, is fueled by revenge for Fitzgerald's actions, and the framework of his arduous journey is amplified by the film's terrific production value and realization that it may have very well been one of the most difficult film shoots ever. The end result certainly feels real enough: The Revenant was shot entirely in sequence, using only natural light, and largely devoid of CGI. The pain on DiCaprio's face is partially due to uncooperative weather, extremely short shooting windows, and pining for that elusive Oscar.
Never mind that large chunks of Glass' tale have never been substantiated (at least by the man himself, before his death ten years after the events depicted here), including the fact that he never actually had a son and thus wasn't "left for dead" under the same circumstances. Nitpicking the film's historical accuracy negates its narrative effectiveness (and will annoy whoever you're watching it with), especially since the whole "Inspired by True Events" was probabaly more of a studio marketing gimmick and not a calculated Coen Brothers tactic. What we're left with is a movie that cost more than Gravity, which shares many of its narrative shortcuts but likewise succeeds through visual prowess and a strong lead performance. Perhaps disgruntled members of the cast and crew wouldn't consider The Revenant worth all that hard work...but for everyone with a comfy couch, coffee, and a strong heater, it's a bearable journey.
Preceded by Richard Sarafian's Man in the Wilderness (1971), starring Richard Harris as Glass stand-in Zachary Bass, The Revenant is an effective re-telling of a frontier legend that plays extremely well on a large screen (and honestly, it was a more suitable candidate for 70mm than The Hateful Eight). Yet it also survives the transition to home video thanks to Fox's terrific Blu-ray (also available as a UHD-4K disc), which serves up a stunning A/V presentation but less than an hour's worth of bonus features. Though a more substantial edition might arrive in the future---and hopefully, with a warts-and-all account of the troubled production---this works well enough in the meantime.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, The Revenant looks predictably flawless on Blu-ray. This crisp, 4K sourced 1080p transfer preserves the film's oppressive, cold appearance perfectly well; there's obviously no dirt or damage to speak of, while the filtered colors appear accurate to the theatrical presentation. Image detail, contrast levels, and textures are strong though somewhat diffused at times due to the film's intended style, while the lack of digital imperfections ensures that The Revenant pushes the 1080p image to its absolute limits (an UltraHD 4K release is also available separately, if you're part of the next generation already). This is simply a great presentation of difficult source material, translating the film's overpowering, bleak atmosphere to the small screen as well as possible.
DISCLAIMER: The resized promotional images and screen captures featured in this review do not represent Blu-ray's 1080p resolution.
Likewise, The Revenant's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix (also available in separate French, Portuguese, and Spanish Dolby 5.1 dubs, as well as a Descriptive Audio track that's probably hilarious during that bear mauling sequence) creates a consistently forceful and compelling atmosphere; music cues, howling winds, and background noises are well-placed and effective without screaming for attention. Low frequency output is also ample at times, filling out much of the sonic landscape without bulldozing everything else. Overall, The Revenant's premise and atmosphere absolutely beg for wide-open effects and clever touches, and this lossless audio presentation takes advantage of those demands with a great mix that's not as overcooked as it could've been in lesser hands. Although the lack of a Dolby Atmos track (even on the separate UHD 4K disc) is unfortunate, there's virtually nothing to complain about here. Optional SDH captions and/or subtitles have been included in all four languages during the film and applicable bonus features.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The clean, efficient menu showcases scenes from the film with appropriate music, and it loads quickly with minimal distractions beforehand; a smart move, as little touches like this really add to the film's heavy atmosphere. This one-disc release is housed in an eco-friendly keepcase with a Digital Copy
redemption slip and a matching fold-out slipcover.
Though it's already been available on YouTube via 20th Century Fox for several months now---and in 1080p, no less---the 44-minute "A World Unseen" (below) is the primary extra included here. Alejandro Inarritu and Leonardo DiCaprio are featured occasionally but not prominently, as this is much more of a socially conscious, visually poetic, and existential work rather than the usual on-set puff piece. The film's theme of father-son dynamics, man vs. nature, its portrayal of Native Americans, environmental/cultural irresponsibility, and shooting difficulties are all touched upon. Even so, those expecting a detailed look at the film's production may walk away feeling disappointed or even blindsided, but this is still a visually stunning mini-doc that's cut from the same cloth as The Qatsi Trilogy and Baraka.
A Gallery, available in self-playing and manual options, serves up photos captured during principal photography between October 2014 and August 2015 in Canada and Argentina. The lack of a trailer and other traditional extras (commentary, featurettes) may suggest a more substantial edition down the line, but what's here is satisfying in its own right.
The Revenant is an exercise in pure atmosphere that, like it or not, places the viewer directly in its brutal, beautiful world and rarely lets up from start to finish. This is an easy film to get completely absorbed by and, though it's a bit repetitive in the middle and takes a lot of liberties with the "true events" it's based on, the end result is often jaw-dropping and will likely stick in your mind for days afterwards. Those worried about The Revenant's translation to the small screen should rest easy: Fox's Blu-ray features one of the format's best A/V presentations to date (and I'd imagine an even better UHD 4K release), although the extras are surprisingly thin overall and rebuff standard "behind-the-scenes" rituals. New viewers should consider this a decent blind buy; established fans should indulge as well, unless you're holding out for the possibility of a more substantial disc down the road. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys fending off bears, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.