By Adam Cutrone
In February of 2015, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu showed up to the Oscars with his unlikely Indy contender “Birdman” and went home a winner. Just shy of a year later, and alongside his enormously talented cast and crew, Iñárritu has created the most uncompromising and breathtakingly brutal film you will see this year in “The Revenant”.
Adapted from the 2002 novel of the same name, “The Revenant” chronicles the true story of American Frontiersman Hugh Glass’ unfathomable tale of perseverance in the pursuit of vengeance. A series of heartbreaking vignettes serve as a prologue with haunting simplicity. These brief somber portraits are accompanied by the affectionate whisper of a newly widowed father. Glass clutches his son and speaks to him in his native Pawnee:
“It’s OK, son. I know you want this to be over. I’m right here. But, you don’t give up. As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing.”
“The Revenant” emerges from its surreal opening and creeps through thick woods toward the bustling camp of early American fur trappers located in the heart of the 1820s Rocky Mountain wilderness. Alongside his son, Hugh Glass, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has been hired by the fur traders to guide them through the various dangers of the region. What begins as a camp of a few dozen is sharply lowered to a small handful at the hands of a surprise attack by the Arikara tribe.
The ensuing skirmish is every bit as visceral and heart-pounding as Steven Spielberg’s famous invasion of Omaha Beach in “Saving Private Ryan”. What director Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieve in this opening sequence is nothing short of extraordinary. The world these characters inhabit is awe-inspiring in its beauty and its authenticity, yet calculated and utterly ruthless in its brutality. The film wavers dangerously between these two polarities time and time again and usually all within a single shot. Similarly to his work on films like “Gravity” (2013) and “Birdman” (2014), Lubezki creates an impossibly frenetic experience that is unlike anything viewers have ever seen — weaving throughout exhausting close quarter combat while dodging arrows that strike any and all surrounding targets with terrifying precision. The level of immersion achieved in this sequence and many others embodies an ideal that directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino have proudly staked their careers on: That all films, to a certain degree, are “3D” and that a pair of clunky plastic glasses are not the only key to an extremely intimate and exciting film experience.
Breaking from the stereotypical “cowboys and Indians” motif depicted in less favorable western epics of the past, the natives of “The Revenant” are tactically profound and intellectually sound. Don’t get me wrong, these indigenous tribes are quite capable of committing ruthless and deliberate acts of violence, however these proud people are only dangerous despite their emotional complexity, not due to a lack of one. “The Revenant” also makes it immediately clear that any preconceived notions of the superiority of a pistol and rifle over the practiced tactical skill and flexibility of the First Nation warriors and their arsenal is gravely mistaken.
Before we get to the man of the hour (at least as far as the Golden Globes are concerned) let’s address the outstanding performances of the supporting cast — starting with an actor who has had arguably the greatest year of any actor on Earth, and you’ve probably never even heard his name. Domhnal Gleeson is either an incredibly talented young actor or he has an incredibly talented agent. My guess is that it’s a little of both. In just this year alone, the “Harry Potter” alum has starred in the quietly successful sci-fi thriller “Ex-Machina”, starred alongside Soairse Ronan in Best Picture Nominee “Brooklyn”, led the tumultuous fur traders of “The Revenant” as Captain Andrew Henry and attempted to overthrow the Rebel Resistance in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. All these films released within a few weeks of one another. It’s simply remarkable. Next up is a personal favorite of mine, Mr. Tom Hardy. Though not nearly as unrecognizable as his recently gilded co-star, Hardy’s total mastery of the repugnant John Fitzgerald injects a necessary and deeply genuine malice that fuels this almost three-hour revenge masterpiece from start to finish. Consistent with previous villainous roles, Hardy’s southern twang often wavers somewhere between authentic and incomprehensible. But in a film that is practically devoid of dialogue to begin with, it’s rarely what Hardy is saying but how he venomously delivers each line, whether we’re listening or not, that makes his character feel so genuine.
Whether “The Revenant” is Leonardo DiCaprio’s greatest Oscar-worthy performance, is practically irrelevant when you consider his tireless commitment in bringing Iñárritu’s uncompromising vision to the screen. Braving some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, DiCaprio shines through caked layers of blood, mud and ice. As previously stated, there are large portions of this film devoid of dialogue and much of the story is guided simply through DiCaprio’s eyes or body language. It’s in these most intimate moments that we align with DiCaprio the most. Despite what some may describe as a somewhat dissatisfying conclusion to reap the vengeance that is dearly owed to him, the audience is left to wonder whether the will to survive is bolstered solely on the idea of seeking vengeance or something more. “…You don’t give up. As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing.”