Fresh off the critical success of Birdman (last year’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars), Mexican master director Alejandro González Iñárritu takes the world by storm yet again with The Revenant. It is a film that’s at least as interesting to read about as it is to watch, with more than enough crazy stories about what manner of lunacy went into its production. From what I’ve gathered, it’s been a while since someone cared this much about making the movie he wanted, no matter what sort of ordeal it would cause for the rest of the crew (I’m fondly reminded of The Abyss).
In many ways, it shows. The Revenant is an unreasonably good film that achieves a sense of devastation and realism just as much as in how well-made it is as in how smashing the performances are. I’ve a feeling Iñárritu will be a name oft-mentioned at this year’s Oscar party as well, hopefully without the semi-racist comments courtesy of Sean Penn this time.
The year is 1820-something. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a rugged frontiersman who ends up in a severe grizzly bear attack during a hunting expedition in the cold Louisiana wilderness. Alongside him is a hunting team consisting of his officer Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), his “half-Native” son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and the dangerously selfish John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). They all come to Glass’ aid after the mauling, with Jim, Hawk and Fitzgerald volunteering to stay behind to guard him as the rest go seeking help.
The mauling scene itself is absolutely great! It’s impressively realistic but also extreme, and many a squeamish viewer will likely find it difficult to watch. Although this applies to the violence displayed in the rest of the movie as well.
A barely-mobile Glass is promptly left for dead after Fitzgerald loses patience and (1) attempts to take his life, (2) instead kills Hawk right in front of him, and (3) runs off with Jim after lying to him about Native Americans approaching. The rest of the film concerns Glass, attempting to survive in the wilderness despite his major injuries and the constantly looming danger of Native American warriors, who’ll want him dead as soon as they see the color of his face, with nothing driving him but a thirst for revenge. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse, but by jove is it enticing to watch. You’re so captivated by what’s happening that you most likely won’t think about the fact that Iñárritu kept changing the filming locations as the weather conditions kept shifting and he didn’t get to keep all that snow he needed. This is the sort of thing moviegoers would otherwise notice, right?
There are several action scenes in the film that contain long shots and even if he didn’t try to make the entire movie in as few shots as possible, á la Birdman, what Iñarritu does here is perhaps even more admirable, considering the amount of things happening within the time frame of one take and how vexing it must have been to direct and shoot. Likewise, many of the non-action bits are filmed in long takes and the actors pull through beautifully.
Iñárritu clearly has conviction to his craft and a passion to remark, something that the actors in The Revenant can probably vouch for. There’s more than a few behind-the-scenes stories of what Iñárritu put his cast and crew through. For one, Leonardo DiCaprio was allegedly forced to sleep outside, on location, during certain shoots with nothing but animal skins to protect himself from the cold. He also had to learn how to operate a musket, how to speak Panwee and Arikara, as well as eat raw bison meat in spite of being vegetarian.
At least that’s what certain sources tell me. Maybe they’re just making parts of it up to (yet again) make us all feel extra sorry for DiCaprio because he hasn’t won that Oscar of his yet. I don’t know why everyone is still sniffling over that and cracking dumb jokes about it. Isn’t it slightly more unfair that none of this past year’s acclaimed African-American filmmakers and actors got Oscar-snubbed for the second year in a row (which gets extra shady when you consider that films like Creed were still nominated in areas where only white people were involved)? As for The Revenant itself, it features many great Native-American actors in supporting roles. What about them? No cries for justice there either?
Now don’t get me wrong. This is probably the finest acting I’ve ever seen Leonardo DiCaprio do, particularly considering his behind-the-scenes adventures, even if it is very much a repeat of the sort of performance he normally gives. To summarize what I mean by that, allow me to refer you to a recent article published on The Onion which reads “Leonardo DiCaprio Hopes He Screamed And Cried Good Enough In ‘The Revenant’ To Win Oscar”. To quote an excerpt: “’I bet my chances are good because this is the most I’ve ever screamed and cried—way more than I did in Revolutionary Road or Gangs Of New York.’ … DiCaprio then admitted that he is still somewhat nervous that he did a bad job during the parts where he sits quietly and looks at something far away.”
In earnest, DiCaprio’s performance is still sensational, especially in such parts as the aforementioned bear attack scene (I speculate this scene is why the movie is also up for a VFX Oscar). Even so, a contender for the “most entertaining player in the film” is probably Tom Hardy, incomprehensible accent notwithstanding. He, too, is nominated for an Oscar as we speak, and I’d say he deserves it at least as much as Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies. The entire cast is thoroughly pretty spot-on.
Furthermore, the film is sometimes shockingly believable. There are some really outstanding special effects, including a scene where Glass attempts to have a drink of water after getting mauled and abandoned, only for the water to partially pour out of a gash in his throat. The realism is strengthened by Iñárritu’s unusual choice to have all shots rely on natural lighting, with minimal aid from actual equipment, and it didn’t hurt that the refused to use anything resembling a green-screen. The camera work is also effortful, as is the costume design and the make-up. Indeed, I could probably praise this film all day, but let’s wait and see what the Academy says. Not that they’re known to often be right.
The Revenant is a success in too many aspects to name. And yet, I think this will go down in history as the next Apocalypse Now; a movie that may be terrific, but the documentary about how the film came to be being even better. I’m already waiting for the Hearts of Darkness to this film’s Apocalypse Now.