Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Film Review: The Revenant (2015)

© 20th Century Fox | Source: The Hollywood News
USA; 156 min.; drama, adventure, biography
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Writing: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro G. Iñárritu; based on the novel The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge by Michael Punke
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Melaw Nakehk’o 

“As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing.” – Hugh Glass

The Revenant won three major awards at the Golden Globes last Sunday: Best Actor, Best Director and Best Motion Picture. And although we can almost safely say that Leonardo DiCaprio will also grab his first Oscar at the end of February – I repeat, Leonardo DiCaprio will most probably finally be given his first Oscar – the overall success at the Globes was kind of unexpected. Up against Spotlight and Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant came out on top of two critical darlings, and while I personally hold the other two films in higher regard than Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s survival drama, I still think that The Revenant is a masterly crafted, visceral movie experience worthy of praise and recognition.    

Loosely based on the real life of fur trapper Hugh Glass, here played by DiCaprio, the film is set somewhere in the US American wilderness during the cold, merciless winter of 1823. When Glass is severely wounded in a bear mauling, the rogue and spiteful John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) kills Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who is also part of the hunting party, and leaves the father behind to die in the wild. Glass, however, manages to survive and embarks on an arduous quest in order to seek revenge.

The Revenant is, first and foremost, a cinematographic masterpiece. DP Emmanuel Lubezki, who already shot the hell out of The New World (2005), The Tree of Life (2011) or last year’s Birdman, uses mostly gloomy natural light and long, lingering takes. He has the camera move freely among the characters, allowing the viewer to immerse in the activities of the trappers and, at the same time, creating a tense atmosphere of unease because one can never be sure what is about to approach from any angle of the screen. Paired with an impeccable use of sound, the visuals bring the breathtaking beauty as well as the uncertainties and dangers of nature to life.

Cleverly marketed as a gruesome spectacle of epic proportions before the film was even released, the bear mauling scene really is a highlight. It’s raw, brutal and appears frighteningly real. Without a doubt, a grand feat for the CGI department and, again, the cinematography. In general, ruthlessness and brutality are constant companions in The Revenant, with the film depicting human nature at its most visceral and savage, but without ever exploiting the fate of its characters. Here, brutality isn’t included for the mere thrill, the mere sensation of it. It’s much more an integral part of the story.

While the plot follows a sometimes all-too conventional pattern of a classic revenge tale and is occasionally slowed down by some redundant moments and, for my taste, overly artsy dream sequences, it’s the underlying themes that I thoroughly enjoy. Iñárritu has us question the difference between human and animal nature, and how humans, with all their drives, ambitions and flaws influence their environment. Instinct and reason, are under scrutiny here, and Iñárritu, despite telling a tale of survival and determination, presents a rather sinister, yet fascinating outlook on humanity.

Much has already been said about DiCaprio’s dedicated performance. Crawling through the freezing cold snow, eating raw animal organs, fighting bears and humans alike, growing a beard from his ever young baby face – he’s done it all. I’m glad to finally see him gain so much recognition for his work because, well, it’s about time, damn it! However, while there’s nothing wrong with his portrayal in The Revenant, I believe that this particular performance is more about crossing physical boundaries than good ol’ character acting. It’s in the nature of this story that Glass spends more time trying to stay alive than acting out a range of subtle emotions. This film doesn’t ask for moments in which DiCaprio transforms mentally (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993), hits us with unexpected fragility (Blood Diamond, 2006) or has his character live in constant fear of detection (The Departed, 2006). This film is about physical survival under excruciating circumstances, and DiCaprio gives it his all.

Tom Hardy, as the antagonist, is allowed more room to subtly flesh out his character. And do you know why he succeeds? Because he’s Tom Hardy. Period. It’s quite a task to bring some humanity to a character that is, right from the start, set out to be an evil, intimidating, bullying, selfish little motherfucker. And while Hardy portrays all these qualities with ease, he’s also able to endow Fitzgerald with an emotional back story that’s intriguing to watch. Hardy can do intense like nobody else in this business at the moment, and together with DiCaprio’s restrained and brooding Glass the two create an onscreen dynamic that is a joy to behold.

The Revenant certainly is long. Its unspectacular story arch sometimes even feels long. But still the film succeeds in delivering ambitious themes and a gripping character dynamic in the most beautiful, grim and captivating visuals. I felt haunted by its impact days after I’ve seen it, and I actually can’t wait to go back to this icy, dim place and rewatch Glass’ struggle with nature and mankind. You know what I also can’t wait to see? DiCaprio winning an Oscar. But don’t fret, it won’t be long now, Leo. It won’t be long.


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