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The Revenant (Leonardo DiCaprio) - Review

The Revenant

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

THREE words best sum up Alejandro González Iñárritu’s survival thriller The Revenant: brutal, breath-taking, astonishing.

Inspired by the real-life adventures of Hugh Glass, a 19th Century Wyoming mountain expert and fur trapper who survived a bear mauling and vowed revenge on the two men who abandoned him to die, the film offers a visual tour-de-force that combines stunning scenes of natural beauty with moments of bone-crunching savagery.

In doing so, it also examines notions of survival, revenge and humanity: the latter point, in particular, an expansive notion in the way that it often cruelly examines mankind’s lack thereof… either to each other, especially in its depiction of the relationship between the settlers and the First Nation people, or to the landscape and its inhabitants. And it doesn’t sugar-coat nature’s terrifying capacity to hit back.

The film wastes little time in immersing you into the action. A group of civilian privateers, led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and guided by Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), have been collecting furs along the Missouri river but find themselves set upon by tribesmen-warriors. The attack leaves those who survive at odds with each other, desperate to make good on their winter’s work but equally desperate to get home.

When Glass accidentally stumbles upon a family of bear cubs, he is attacked by the mother and mauled to the point of death. Realising there is little they can do for him, Henry leaves two members of his team – young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and grizzled John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) – as well as Glass’ Native Indian son to look after him in his final hours, promising them more money if they can stay and ensure Glass a proper burial.

But Fitzgerald has his own plan and promptly kills Glass’ son and leaves the guide for dead, not counting on Glass’ will to survive.

The ensuing film follows Glass as he battles against the elements and his injuries to find Fitzgerald, while also remaining one step ahead of the Indians on his trail. And it is as much of an endurance test for the audience as it is for its leading man given Iñárritu’s desire to strive for authenticity and to create a genuinely big screen experience.

The opening attack by warriors sets the tone for what follows: desperation and confusion amid wince-inducing violence. Men scream and shout as arrows fly into their necks. It’s a bravura opening but one that serves notice on the kind of grip and tension that the film maintains throughout.

And then there’s the bear attack itself, shockingly realistic yet noble for the way in which it doesn’t hold back. Iñárritu shoots it in such a way that you virtually feel every tear of Glass’ flesh… the agony of the experience etched across his face along with a desperate will to protect himself. It’s a ferocious sequence and one that leaves you breathless.

Thereafter, there are more encounters with Indians, as well as fellow trappers, to negotiate, as well as the continued battle against the elements – from piercing winds to freezing snow. Iñárritu’s lens thrusts you right into every scene, to the point that you might not be able to tell whether you’re shivering with the same sense of cold, or just quivering with excitement and anticipation.

But therein lies the real magic of this movie. By ignoring the temptation to employ special effects as much as possible, and allowing nature to take precedence, Iñárritu’s film is its own masterpiece. There’s so much going on so many contrasts. A late fight scene, for instance, unfolds in a valley as the sunlight slowly seeps along the cliff-face into it; while another sequence finds Glass doing something in the foreground as an avalanche occurs behind him. It is, quite simply, stunning.

And yet in creating something so original and striking in its own right, Iñárritu still manages to tip his hat to other filmmakers he has long admired, whether it’s John Ford, Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick (to name but three).

Of note, too, are the performances… all of which are made all the more incredible (and undoubtedly real) because of the conditions they were captured in. Gleeson, Poulter and Hardy all shine – the latter, a sustained study in wild-eyed menace, and yet a man whose appearance alone suggests that he, too, has been through his own emotional and physical wringer.

Several of the First Nation people also shine, not least a lone Indian who comes to Glass’ aid midway through the film.

But it’s DiCaprio who deservedly gets the most plaudits. His devotion to the role is evident, as Iñárritu throws so much at him, whether enduring the bear attack itself or sleeping in the inside of a horse to avoid freezing in the extreme cold, or even navigating the wild waters of a freezing cold river. This is as physically testing as it is mentally taxing. But the pain of his predicament also comes through at all times… whether heartbreak over the losses that have come to define him, or the anger that drives him to keep going. If Daniel Day-Lewis rightly swept all before him for his awards-laden performance in There Will Be Blood, then DiCaprio should do the same for his gutsy work here.

That being said, the film might not be to everyone’s tastes. The film is gruelling and there is very little in the way of humour or romance to alleviate the primal nature of the adventure. While Iñárritu’s decision to occasionally step out of the action to offer shots of the natural surroundings may also frustrate some too.

But for the vast majority who see it, The Revenant is a work of staggering quality. It is an unforgettable experience.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 156mins
UK Release Date: January 15, 2016