The survival film is a type of genre that pushes people to the breaking point of endurance. Few films have captured the agony that these individuals have to endure; one strong example is the real-life mountain climbing drama 127 Hours. However, most films do not show how people are affected mentally and emotionally.
Director Alejandro Gonzazlez Inarritu rises to the challenge in The Revenant, an epic western film based on the novel by Michael Punke, who was inspired by the real-life exploits of trapper Hugh Glass. Having captured the human psyche in last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman, he now aims to look at how revenge can consume a person. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, The Revenant is a grim, pensive portrayal of life on the American Frontier.
Set in the 1823, the film concerns fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he leads a party through the wilderness in what is now Montana and South Dakota. Following an attack by Arikara Native Americans, the group is forced to abandon their plans to travel by river, deciding to return to their outpost on foot.
As an experienced frontiersman, Glass knows the ins and outs of battling the elements, but he is faced with suspicion from his companions, especially that of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald is equally mistrustful of Glass’ son Hawke (Forrest Goodluck) having native ancestry; his prejudice towards native americans stems from being partially scalped in his past.
After venturing into the wilderness, Glass startles a family of bears and gets attacked by the mother. Left bloodied and scarred, he is barely conscious and immobile. Captain Andrew Henry (Dominhall Gleeson) decides to lead the party to safety and instead leaves Fitzgerald, Hawk and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) to watch Glass. Shortly afterwards, Fitzgerald attempts to suffocate him and fatally shoots Hawk when he tries to intervene. He buries the still-alive Glass in a shallow grave and lies to Bridger, claiming their guide is dead. Unknown to them, Glass manages to dig himself out and slowly continues his journey, with the intent on killing Fitzgerald in revenge. He is forced to avoid an advancing band of Arikara warriors, deal with an impending blizzard, and recall hallucinations of his deceased wife and son.
DiCaprio is in fine form as Glass, a mountain man and adventurer of few words. The grim, stoic Glass is nearly unrecognizable under his long hair and a scraggly beard. His quiet, brooding nature is a far cry from the boyish, youthful characters DiCaprio has played in the past. It is his long moments of silence that showcase DiCaprio’s ability to act with body language and expressions. Such is the scene where he painfully witnessed his son’s death while being physically incapacitated and unable to stop it.
Hardy is given a substantial amount to work with as Fitzgerald. In contrast to his previous portrayals of villains, he is mostly motivated to survive, rather than being driven by money or desire. While Fitzgerald is set up as Glass’ antagonist, the actor manages to give a meaningful backstory to his character’s distrust of Native Americans.
Gleeson’s Henry is a man forced into a difficult situation, and he does a good job in showcasing uncertainty in having to make tough decisions. His finest moment is when he has to decide whether or not to kill Glass out of mercy, and one can almost sense his relief in sparing the wounded man. Finally, Poulter offers a troubled, uncertain portrayal as the young man with a conscience. His agony over having to choose to following the group or staying with Glass is genuine and profound.
The Revenant is beautifully shot with natural lighting and special emphasis on the visuals. Instead of green screen technology, director Inarittu has chosen to use natural wilderness in the film, insisting on total realism. The resulting effect allows the actors’ performances to respond in kind to the harsh winter surroundings. Special credit must be given to composers Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, who manage to create a score that proves to be equally pensive and moving.
With The Revenant, Inarittu has succeeded in delivering one of the finest films of the year. DiCaprio is once again in fine form, and he continues to deliver as a leading man. Hardy, Gleeson and Poulter also deliver good performances. Whether or not Inarittu can claim Best Picture again remains to be seen, but he continues to shine as a filmmaker.