One of this year’s most buzzed about films, The Revenant may finally earn DiCaprio his much coveted Oscar. But in a crowded Oscar race, what makes it stand out from the pack?
The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, is a relentlessly bleak, but hauntingly beautiful survival/revenge film based “in part” on the novel of the same name by Michael Punke (itself based on the incredible true story of frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass).
In the 1820s, in the untamed wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a rugged group of fur trappers are hunting for pelts when they are ambushed by a tribe of Native Americans. Suffering heavy casualties, the fur trappers escape, thanks to Glass’ quick thinking and knowledge of the area. But after Glass is critically wounded in a brutal bear attack, his comrades leave him for dead. So begins Glass’ slow and painful journey over 200 miles of unforgiving wilderness to exact his revenge on Fitzgerald, the cruel man who betrayed him (Tom Hardy in a stellar performance).
Although DiCaprio does not have much dialogue, he delivers an intense, tour-de-force physical performance worthy of an Oscar. You can feel Glass’ suffering through the screen as he pulls his broken body through the frozen landscape and desperately attempts to survive with almost nothing but a canteen and his outdoorsman skills. It’s an intensely visceral experience unlike anything I’ve seen in years. The brutal shooting conditions are already the stuff of legend — the film was shot entirely with natural light in remote and frigid locations far away from the comfort of Hollywood studios. At times, the temperatures sank as low as -22°F. This would be an impressive enough accomplishment, but the famously method actor went above and beyond, putting himself through hell to get into Hugh Glass’ mindset (among the highlights: plunging into an icy river, starving himself, and even eating raw bison meat). DiCaprio’s absolute dedication to the role is undeniable and shines through his captivating performance on screen, captured beautifully by master DP Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezski.
From the very beginning, Iñárritu and Lubezski set out to shoot the film in a way that felt authentic and put the viewer right beside Glass in his fight for survival. They succeed in creating a film that is more immersive than most 3D movies. This is accomplished through the use of long takes, wide-angle lenses, and natural lighting devoid of the usual Hollywood glamor. Iñárritu also allows scenes to play out in a slow, deliberate pace with plenty of long silences in an approximation of real life. The scene in which Glass is brutally mauled by a bear goes on for several lengthy minutes — the camera lingering on the attack, refusing to cut away. The mauling feels like it is playing out in real-time, making it even more unnerving and hard to watch. Another scene, in which a tribe of Native Americans attack the fur trappers, plays out like a Western version of the Omaha landing scene from Saving Private Ryan — unflinching in its brutality and realism.
Lubezski also uses some other techniques to bolster the viewer’s immersion in the film. A few times in the film, he places his camera so close to Leo’s face that his breath fogs up the lens. This acknowledgment of the cinematic apparatus is rare in Hollywood cinema because it risks shattering the illusion of the filmic world. However, here it has the opposite effect on the viewer — pulling us deeper into Glass’ subjective experience. And yet these intensely intimate moments are constantly contrasted to lingering wide shots of vast, imposing landscapes, suggesting that Glass’ human-scale struggles are insignificant in the larger scheme of the natural world. In this way, the cinematography creates a fascinating tension between the subjective human experience and the objective indifference of the universe—the classic existential struggle writ large.
The film is breathtaking in its visual beauty. Every other shot is a masterpiece of framing, composition, and lighting. In fact, the cinematography is so incredible that it occasionally calls too much attention to itself, somewhat undermining Iñárritu and Lubezski’s desired immersion effect. I was often tempted to take a step back from the film in order to study and admire the images as works of art.
The narrative itself is simple, yet effective. It’s captivating to watch Glass use his wits to survive in the wild and we’re rooting for him to get his revenge on Fitzgerald. However, nothing that happens is particularly surprising and the events play out largely as one might expect. In addition, the film struggles somewhat with a half-baked subplot involving the kidnapping of a native chief’s daughter–an unseen incident that sets off the events of the story, but is largely unnecessary. Iñárritu clearly wants to highlight the horrific treatment of native peoples in 1820s America–but this reality is conveyed much more effectively in the treatment of Glass’ half-Native American son and the repeated images of native towns being slaughtered.
The Revenant may not be a perfect film, but with its jaw-dropping cinematography, unflinching realism, and riveting performances by DiCaprio and Hardy it is a cinematic marvel that stands out amongst the crowd. It absolutely demands to be seen in theaters and deserves to win big at the Oscars this year.
Runtime: 156 minutes