Set in 1823 in the harsh winter conditions of the northern mid-west, The Revenant tells the (somewhat) true tale of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a highly skilled tracker and scout hired on by the U.S. army to assist with carrying out expeditions into wild and previously unclaimed territory. Accompanying him is his son, Hawk, who has the misfortune of being half-Pawnee in early 19th century America. Despite surviving a raid by the Arikara indians, referred to as “Ree” throughout the film, Glass finds himself on the bad end of a brutal mauling by a grizzly bear. Though the captain of the party does his best to do right by Glass, he is ultimately abandoned, left with his son, another boy from the party named Jim, and a sour and racist character by the name of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Tired of being held back by Glass in his thoroughly disabled state, and untrusting of Hawk due to the nature of him being a “half-breed”, Fitzgerald attempts to put Glass out of his misery, and in the process kills Hawk in front of the helpless Glass, who is left for dead in a shallow grave. Spurred on by rage and sheer determination, Glass defies all odds to seek out Fitzgerald and get his revenge.
What struck me about The Revenant early on was its use of sound and dialogue. Despite the film being just about 2 and a half hours long, the total amount of time characters are engaged in dialogue might clock in at, 30 minutes? 45 maybe? A great deal of the storytelling that The Revenant does isn’t in the words that the characters are saying, but in their eyes, their body language, or more likely, the beautiful and unforgiving setting that they find themselves in. I lost track of the number of times a scene would end and cut to a ground-up view of a tree-line, or a wide panoramic view of snow-capped Dakota forests. I could think of nobody who could introduce you to these landscapes better than Academy Award winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, known for his work on Gravity and Birdman. Despite the lack of dialogue, you’ll find yourself engrossed in the world that Lubezki has captured, as it does a much better job of communicating its danger and wonder than any scripted description could.
As beautiful as the world Lubezki’s captured is, make no mistake that it is a brutal and unforgiving one as well. The opening scene is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, as Glass and his company are attacked by a raiding party of Ree indians. Arrows pierce skulls and travel through eye sockets, men lose limbs, scream and cry in anguish. Throughout the film Glass endures a number of horrific injuries, not the least of which being his mauling by a grizzly, which was easily one of the hardest scenes that I’ve had to watch in recent memory. These scenes of brutality serve as shocking antipodes to the serene beauty of Lubezki’s landscapes, and do well to bring you back to reality.
While Lubezki’s cinematography paints the world of The Revenant, Alejandro Inarritu provides the canvas. His wilderness is not only a place of brutality and wonder, but also of spiritualism, rebirth, and redemption. While I can appreciate Inarritu’s theming throughout the movie, particularly the constant references to the wind and trees, some elements seemed a bit too forced, including the “rebirth” of Glass near the end of the film. (For those who haven’t seen the film yet, let me say that it’s pretty easy to catch, but in case you had any doubts just keep an eye out for a scene involving a fierce blizzard and a horse carcass.) Still, when I wasn’t being distracted by his message, I was appreciating his willingness to get into the moral mud.
Of course, just as important as the world that’s been created are the characters that find themselves within it; and that’s where Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy’s exceptional performances help to carve out The Revenant’s emotional impact. The two haven’t shared a screen since Inception, and after The Revenant you’ll wonder why they don’t pair the two up more often. To start with, DiCaprio’s Glass obviously has a tormented past, and what shreds of happiness he has left dies with his son, Hawk. From his mauling through the end of the film, DiCaprio does very little talking, but much like Tom Hanks’ stellar performance in Cast Away, it’s more about his ability to communicate the driving force behind his desperate fight for survival. What speaks to DiCaprio’s performance more than anything else in this movie is how powerful that quest for revenge is, and how committed he is to it, and by proxy how committed the audience is to seeing the task through to the bitter end.
Tom Hardy’s incarnation of John Fitzgerald sheds light on an entirely different angle. His concept of survival is much more self-serving, though the moral grey area seems to widen when the audience considers the harsh realities of the world they are in. While he certainly earns his role as the antagonist, when you consider what you would do if your company was dragging a half-dead man up a frozen mountain, you may find yourself looking into the abyss only to find it staring back at you. Ultimately that was what impressed me the most about Hardy’s performance, is that he plays a character thoroughly ruthless and unforgiving, and yet in a way captures the survival instinct of man that makes you question whether he was truly in the wrong.
A few of the reviews I’ve seen out there draw some similarities between this movie and the 90s classic Dances with Wolves. It’s understandable; the two revolve around American frontiersman in a way, prominently feature Native American tribes as the common enemy, and yet both protagonists have a unique relationship to them that makes him a product of both worlds. The cinematography and music also strengthen their similarities, though I will say right out that Dances with Wolves solidly wins in the music category. Still, there are a lot of similarities in the construction of the film, but they depart from each other with one glaring difference: realism. While Dances with Wolves would have you cheering Kevin Costner on when he recruits a wolf as his companion and integrates himself into the Sioux tribe, The Revenant splashes some cold water on your face, letting you know that the wolf would just as likely rip out Costner’s throat than become his faithful companion. Put bluntly, The Revenant is a brutal film. It depicts a harsh and cold landscape that is not for the faint of heart or the weak-willed. It’s much more comfortable dealing with moral ambiguity, and is just fine leaving a particular storyline unresolved by the time the credits roll thank you very much. In short, there are numerous similarities that may cause you to compare the two films to each other, but it won’t be long before you realize that you’re not in Fort Sedgewick anymore.
The Revenant is a spectacular work of art. With superb cinematography and top-notch acting on the part of DiCaprio and Hardy, it will no doubt rack up quite the collection of accolades and awards. Go and enjoy it!