Raw, Brutal The Revenant a Triumph of Spirit and Technique
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2015 24 Dec
DVD Release Date: April 19, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2015 (limited); January 8, 2016 (wide)
Rating: R (for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, strong language, and brief nudity)
Run Time: 156 min
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck
Few modern films attempt a truly grand scale set in the real world (many are digitally-enhanced, others are entirely special effect environments). Fewer still actually pull it off. The Revenant dares the first and, to its credit and our awe, does the second.
It's a grueling, often torturous tale, testing the limits of both its actors and audience. As his past films attest, Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) loves to drag his characters through gauntlets – both physical and psychological – and star Leonardo DiCaprio has made a career out of putting himself through them. Their collaboration is potent.
Iñárritu never compromises on his bold, relentless vision; DiCaprio commits like never before (which is really saying something), and together they actually pull off numerous gambles – including a lengthy bear attack that will have everyone talking, and is likely to stand as an iconic cinematic reference over time. Not for the faint of heart, The Revenant rewards those who are willing and able to endure it.
Inspired by real-life events and based (in part) on a novel about them, The Revenant tells the story of American wilderness travel guide Hugh Glass (DiCaprio, Inception). It's the early 1800s, no less, so the uncharted landscape of the wintertime Northwest is not only imposing but downright lethal under its most extreme conditions (weather and otherwise). Glass, along with his half-Pawnee son Hawk, leads a large group of trappers through this terrain as they look to make a fortune off of fur pelts.
As the expedition crosses paths with a warring Sioux tribe, combat, chaos, and violent mayhem explodes. It's an extended sequence that plays out entirely in a single, whirring, feverish take that's absolutely mindboggling, with vast carnage unfolding in explicit detail. In its wake, the team must move ahead with renewed caution, yet Glass and Hawk's efforts to forge a path are undermined by a conniving, greedy, and bigoted trapper named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road).
When Glass sets out ahead to scout, he's ambushed by the aforementioned grizzly bear. That punishing, exhausting event – which also unfolds in a single, lengthy, uncut take – caps the film's first act of savagery. Its repercussions then set the course for a second act of survival, and a final act of revenge.
It must be emphasized in no uncertain terms just how brutal The Revenant is. The wilds of the American frontier – from nature to animals to clashing cultures – are unforgiving, and so is the depiction of them here. The violence of frontier combat is graphic, from how it's staged and portrayed to seeing its bloody consequences. The bear attack is wholly unique in its bestial, terrifying cruelty. And yet it's all a valid, honest representation, never abhorrently gratuitous even at its most severe (leave that to The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino's latest).
The superior craftsmanship of The Revenant creates a world so mammoth and imposing that it utterly dwarfs its inhabitants, often times causing it to seem as if the film is set on some other mystical planet entirely (locations ranged from Northern Canada to the mountains of Argentina). The natural conditions were demanding, but so were Iñárritu’s techniques. He filmed many scenes in single takes, most requiring razor sharp choreography of multiple moving (and unpredictable) parts. Somehow, it all comes alive in an organic flow, all while utilizing only natural light, according to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's minimalist approach to filming exteriors through wide angle lenses that capture a massive scope.
Some of these complex shots utilize imperceptible digital effects, all seamlessly integrated. Our inability to see where reality and effects blend only enhances the suspense, terror, and wonder. Simply put, The Revenant is a major cinematic achievement on numerous levels, almost too many to fully appreciate or articulate. DiCaprio and Hardy infuse it all with sharply contrasting visions of humanity. DiCaprio shows us a viscerally and existentially tortured being – his body, mind, and soul all taken to the absolute brink. Hardy, meanwhile, is the treacherous, soulless purveyor of evil. Both performances are hallmarks of both actors' careers.
Last year, Iñárritu reigned at the Academy Awards with Birdman, and he already may have topped himself. Both films are superbly – but differently – ambitious. Where Birdman was intimate, The Revenant is epic. Each film is brilliant, and they both rise decidedly above the labored self-import of Iñárritu's early work.
The Revenant is Iñárritu abandoning pretense entirely, allowing the story and its themes to speak for themselves as the film examines humanity at its most primal, bloodthirsty core. But there is also resilience – and even grace – through which courage and humility can ascend in the midst of grief, rage, injustice, and loss.
The word "revenant" refers to a person who has returned, supposedly from the dead. It generally means the return of a ghost or spirit, not one in the body, and yet for as haunting as this tale is The Revenant can ultimately be read as a resurrection story. It just happens to be one that spends most of its time tracking the descent into hell.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol: Some alcohol is consumed by men in a pub type setting.
- Language/Profanity: Strong language throughout. Four instances of the Lord's name taken in vain, six uses of the S-word, two SOBs, a vulgar sexual term, two other mild profanities, one N-word, and F-words in the double digits.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Male full frontal nudity seen briefly from a distance. A woman is raped (the moment is fairly brief, without struggle, and no nudity).
- Violence/Other: Various scenes throughout of brutal graphic violence. Scenes involving frontier combat between trappers and Native Americans. Arrows piercing eyes, heads, and necks. Hatchets chopping into people. Multiple stabbings, both in broad combat scenarios as well as individual confrontations. Gun violence, both in broad combat scenarios and individual standoffs. A man's ear is bitten off. Various forms of dismemberment (hands/fingers chopped off and the like). Bloody results often seen to all forms of violence, gaping wounds. Fresh, savaged corpses of humans and carcasses of animals. Two scalped heads are seen at different times. An extended mauling of a man by a grizzly bear; bitten, gouged, clawed, thrown around like a rag doll. A man cauterizes a neck wound with gun powder and fire. Deep, bloody, multiple cuts and bites across the man's body. Men eat raw animal meat. A man disembowels a horse and then crawls inside it for warmth.
Publication date: December 25, 2015
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at icantunseethatmovie.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO's Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show's online "Greenie Awards."