I really, really wanted to love Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant — and I did to an extent — but it does not have the emotional heft to match the operatic grandeur of its settings and cinematography. Rumors drifted back all throughout last year about the painstaking shoot in subzero Canadian wilderness, Leo DiCaprio’s flea-bitten beard (not true) and Iñárritu’s insistence on photographing the film strictly with natural light, the last of which lends the film a magical glow perhaps only seen in the films of Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick. The master director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki has shot several films for Malick, won the Oscar the past two years for Birdman and Gravity and will win again this year: bet on it.
Thus, the primary star of The Revenant is the film’s stark natural beauty. It overwhelms the senses with images and experiences as disgusting as consumption of a raw buffalo liver, refuge taken inside the innards of a hollowed-out horse and, of course, a gruesome, ferocious bear mauling. This film aestheticizes the violence of the untamed frontier and the fury of nature in the way Francisco Goya’s paintings brought a stylized perspective to the horrors of warfare.
The storyline is bare and mythic, the kind of tale told ‘round the campfire as the wind howls outside the cave. The year is 1823, an unthinkable time without iPads, TV, Spotify, lightbulbs or central heating systems. The place is unsettled territory from the Louisiana Purchase (likely somewhere in North Dakota) during the dead of winter. French traders have settled the land and maintain relatively nonviolent relations with the Native Americans, primarily the Arikara tribe. Neither party takes kindly to the encroaching Americans making their way up there to trap fur. One such expedition is led by Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), father to a half-Native son (Forrest Goodluck), and husband to a Native wife killed during genocide. A surly fellow trapper named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) has it in for Glass from the start when the band is ridden upon and attacked by the Arikara.
The sequence of this ambush is one of the most memorable, hugely spectacular action sequences ever put to film, right up there with Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha beach landing. Iñárritu and Lubezki refuse to stop the camera, filming everything in long, evolving, gorgeous shots of bloodshed and mayhem as one poor unsuspecting devil is speared through the chest with an arrow and the Americans flee for their lives to their boat. This scene also sets the tone for the rest of the film — we know we’re in for a harrowing, tough but thrilling ride of crashes over waterfalls and horses ridden clear off cliffs.
Sorry, lost my place there describing how awesome those sequences are! No sooner has the fur-trapping party regrouped then is Glass attacked by a bear. This, again, is another stretch of unthinkably brutal yet mesmerizing filmmaking. Glass doesn’t look like he’ll last the night, and Fitzgerald is eager to dispose of him. The party’s second in command (Domhnall Gleeson) makes the mistake of leaving the mortally wounded Glass in the care of Fitzgerald and youngster Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). As the threat of another Native attack looms, Fitzgerald gets restless. Glass’ son ends up dead and Fitzgerald dumps Glass in a hole and buries him alive. From then on, it’s war. Glass now has nothing to live for except seeing the blood of his son avenged. He rises from the hole, claws his way through the rocky wilds and blistering temperature and becomes in and of himself, a force of nature.
Leonardo DiCaprio has long been campaigning for an Oscar, and the man is long overdue (take your pick: Aviator, Wolf of Wall Street, Gilbert Grape, Revolutionary Road), but as thoroughly committed and relentlessly focused as he clearly is, this is not his best performance. No, this movie makes a fine testament to one actor’s capability to hold attention for hours in the middle of nowhere (see Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Robert Redford in All is Lost), but unfortunately, Hugh Glass is not particularly deep or complex. It is that lack of complexity that works in the film’s favor, making it a simple and elemental tale of vengeance and survival, but DiCaprio personally has done better. His penance served in the wilderness will probably convince the Academy to vote in his favor, but to me it would seem something of a consolation prize.
The deal is, Leo is at his best when playing obsessives; characters drifting back and forth across the line between charismatic and psychopathic have an emotional landscape DiCaprio has mastered. Hugh Glass, as compared to the neurotic enigma Howard Hughes, the cowardly depressive Frank Wheeler or the snake oil salesman-party boy Jordan Belfort, is relatively clean-cut. His son’s been killed, he himself has been left for dead and now he’s gonna hunt down the bastards who are responsible until he has their blood or they have his. The plot is relatively straightforward, and there’s not enough darkness for Leo to tread in; it’s only in the murk where he really gets to show his acting chops. Still, it’s a hell of a ride watching him stave off death and wander through the mountains like a specter risen from the grave, haunting the trail of his enemies.
This story is an undoubtedly immersive experience, full of bold choices by cast and crew. It demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with the best sound available, and if possible with a large audience. Appreciate its impact as you watch your fellow moviegoers twist and writhe in their seats.
Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.