Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
When The Revenant came out last year, it because the latest film to start the chant of “Give Leo an Oscar!” Well, this time it worked, and strangely enough for the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio says less than in any other of his films. Someone needs to start that chant for Richard Deakins, by the way—the man has 13 nominations without a win. Anyway, even before I saw the teaser of the next version of the 1001 Movies book, I figured The Revenant was a virtual lock. It’s got everything the compilers of the book want in a film. It’s long, it’s daring, it’s highly acclaimed, and it’s got a star they love.
It’s also worth noting that it’s evidence that several people had a really good 2015. Tom Hardy was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this and also played the title role in Mad Max: Fury Road. Domnhall Gleeson plays prominently in this and was in Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the critically-acclaimed Ex Machina, a film that also starred Oscar Isaac, who was big in the latest Star Wars film and Alicia Vikander, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Danish Girl. It’s like Six Degrees of Oscar.
Anyway, as virtually all of the readers here will already know, The Revenant is the tale of Hugh Glass, and is based loosely on the story of the real man. When I say loosely, I mean that some of the events are basically true, but the bulk of the backstory is not. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter for the telling of this story. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is guiding a group of trappers for Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Assisting him is his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), born to Glass’s murdered native wife. The group is set upon by a party of Arikara, who kill a good number of the trappers. A handful, including Glass, Hawk, Captain Henry, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Bridger (Will Poulter) escape and attempt to head back to the nearest fort as best they can.
Things become far more complicated for the survivors when, scouting ahead, Glass encounters a bear and her cubs. While he manages to kill the bear, Glass is severely mauled and close to dead. While Fitzgerald wants to simply put a musket ball in him to avoid slowing everyone down, Captain Henry thinks otherwise. Unable to continue dragging Glass’s stretcher, Henry offers a reward to anyone who will stay behind with Glass until the end. Fitzgerald volunteers, as do Bridger and Hawk. After a few days, Fitzgerald attempts to smother Glass. Hawk tries to stop him and Fitzgerald kills him, then tells Bridger that Hawk has run off and that both he and Bridger should bury the still-living but almost dead Glass and head to the fort, so that’s what they do.
But of course, Glass survives. Still be trailed by the Arikara, badly wounded, and desperate, Glass drags himself toward the fort and safety, surviving as best he can. His travels include teaming up for a short time with a Pawnee named Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), rescuing a kidnapped Arikara woman from French trappers (which explains the Arikara war party), and at one point hollowing out a dead horse and sleeping inside it for warmth, a call-back to The Empire Strikes Back (which reminds me of the joke that sleeping inside a taun-taun isn’t that great because they’re only Luke warm). Then, of course, there’s the revenge angle that takes up the third section of the film. Fitzgerald, after all, has quite a bit to answer for.
So let’s get to the guts of this. While Inarritu and DiCaprio got the most acclaim here, for me, the real star is the gorgeous cinematography. There are plenty of moments of real horror in The Revenant. The bear attack, cauterizing the neck wound, eating raw bison liver, the fight at the end, but that doesn’t prevent The Revenant from being truly beautiful. I mentioned Richard Deakins at the top—he has been nominated for 13 Oscars but I think that Emmanuel Lubezki shouldn’t have this one taken away. This is a stunning piece of work. The bear attack alone should’ve at least gotten him nominated.
I should mention the bear attack a little more. It’s a truly great moment and it looks like the real thing. It’s savage and brutal, and nothing is spared us as this giant animal savages Hugh Glass multiple times. There are certainly other scenes that are hard to watch (I found the cauterization scene particularly difficult), but none so memorable.
Of course, the rest is good as well. DiCaprio’s performance is one of his best despite the almost complete lack of dialogue from him for the last 90 minutes. In no small part, this is because virtually the entire movie is his quest for survival. In that respect, it’s similar to films like Cast Away and Gravity, but without the constant monologue. It’s probably closer in that respect to a film like The Naked Prey. It’s his performance that has to hold the whole thing together, and it does, with short moments of Fitzgerald and Bridger tossed in to keep us up to date on the other players in the drama. Virtually the entire movie rests on his shoulders, and he keeps things compelling.
Tom Hardy earned his nomination as well. It’s one of his better performances, and it’s worth noting that I rather like Tom Hardy in general. Fitzgerald is a bastard in this film, no doubt, but he’s not actively malicious or evil. He’s simply willing to do anything to survive. Most of his actions (most, mind you) are completely understandable even if they are cowardly or disturbing.
There’s a lot to like in The Revenant, but this is not an easy movie. There are long sections of it that, despite being about watching a badly wounded man drag himself along the ground, are surprisingly meditative, and to some mindsets, dull. It’s very slow, punctuated with moments of sudden, brutal action. This is not a movie I would choose to watch frequently. Part of that is length, a little more is that it is so slow in places. The lion’s share of that, though, is that I can’t think of anyone with whom I would want to watch it. I’m not sure this is a movie that works for a group—it feels like a solitary experience, much like the one of Hugh Glass himself.
Why to watch The Revenant: It’s solidly bad-ass.
Why not to watch: Long stretches without dialogue may bother some viewers.