A revenant is a person who has returned. The term is usually used in the context of someone who has returned from the dead, either as a ghost or something else. In this respect, it’s use as the title of this fictionalised telling of the story of American frontiersman Hugh Glass is especially apt. It’s a word that perfectly encapsulates the film’s plot and indeed it’s tone. It’s a title that the film lives up to almost every step of the way.
Based in part on Michael Punke’s 2002 book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, The Revenant tells the (mostly) true story of Hugh Glass (six time Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio; The Wolf of Wall Street, Titanic), a 19th century fur trapper in the then untamed American wilderness. Directed by three time Academy Award winner Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Babel) from a screenplay by himself and Mark L. Smith (The Hole, Vacancy), the film picks up in 1823 as Glass guides a hunting party through the wilderness after the group is attacked by the Arikara, a Native American tribe. Led by Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson; Ex Machina, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens), the group quickly loses it’s guide after Glass is brutally mauled by a bear and left unable to move or speak.
Unable to slow lest the Arikara catch up to them, Henry solicits three men to stay with Glass and wait for a rescue party. The group, led by the abrasive John Fitzgerald (Academy Award nominee Tom Hardy; Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dark Knight Rises) who has a strong dislike for Glass, eventually leaves Glass for dead after Fitzgerald covertly kills another of the party, Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and lies about spotting several Arikara scouts to prompt an escape. Left alone in the snowy wilderness, Glass is fuelled by a burning desire for revenge and begins to literally crawl to civilisation, patching himself up along the way.
The Revenant is essentially two and half hours of watching Leonardo DiCaprio suffer. DiCaprio is the reason to see this film: his sheer commitment to the role is right there on the screen. As Glass goes through the wringer again and again, DiCaprio goes along with him. Indeed, the production of this film was something of a nightmare. DiCaprio often had to swim through sub zero rivers and at one point consumes real raw meat on screen. Taking place over nine months, the filming was a true crucible for the actor and my God it shows. There’s few other performances of late that showcase the total investment DiCaprio displays here and at this point it seems almost inconceivable that this won’t be the film that finally nets the man an Oscar.
DiCaprio’s performance is crucial in anchoring the movie when it comes too close to getting swept away by it’s structural faults. The first half or so is absolutely exceptional, showcasing some truly incredible visual storytelling and some of the most gripping scenes in recent cinema history. From the moment the movie opens with one of the most spectacular sequences in recent years, the film jets forward with gusto and supreme confidence, elegantly depicting the brutality of the frontier and drawing on the stark but beautiful landscape to illustrate Glass’ isolation. Particularly breathtaking is Glass’ encounter with the bear, a scene that takes place in one continuous shot over the course of almost five minutes as the man is gorily torn at. The technical mastery of this sequence is absolute and it’s arguably the film’s most successful moment. The first days of Glass’ trek home are also brutally effective. His struggle never feels more real then in these scenes; a brilliant survival story that never pulls its punches. It’s truly an astounding piece of filmmaking.
But, after about an hour of watching Glass trek through the wilderness, the film stumbles from the weight of repetition. There’s only so many different ways to watch a man get hurt before it starts to get tedious and that’s the pothole that The Revenant falls prey too as it goes along.
The Revenant is far too long for it’s own good, clocking in at a bloated 156 minutes. It’s particularly frustrating because you can so easily identify the scenes that should have been cut. Half an hour could have been culled with startling ease if Inarritu had been a bit more aggressive in the editing room and the movie would have been better for it. By the time the movie putters through the overextended finale, it’s run out of wind but that opening half is incredible.
I would actually posit that Inarritu’s skill as a director is even more invaluable to the movie than DiCaprio’s raw performance. The man has an astonishingly astute eye when it comes to photographing his pictures, a trait that was in full display in Birdman just as it is here. He has a penchant for long shots, traversing extremely complex sequences without ever cutting away to the point that it beggars belief that they managed to get it all on film. He insisted on using entirely natural lighting, a decision that extended the shoot time to nine full months and meant that the cast and crew could only shoot several hours a day but the result is stunning. Regardless of it’s structural flaws, The Revenant is a technical masterpiece and it’s yet another example of what makes Inarritu one of the most fascinating directors working today.
In a lot of ways The Revenant reminded me of Gravity. That may sound strange but the films tackle similar themes and situations. Both follow people stranded in a hostile environment struggling to survive against all odds, both are visual spectacles of the highest order and both draw heavily from the concept of mankind’s immeasurable capacity for perseverance. Where The Revenant failed but Gravity succeeded however, is in the pacing. While Gravity stuck to a tight, lean 91 minutes, The Revenant almost doubles that runtime to it’s own detriment. By splaying itself out over such a long period of time, it loses the efficacy of it’s opening half and devolves into tediousness by the final reel. That said, it’s technical splendour and that incredible performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as the sheer brilliance of it’s opening half, make this a hugely impressive film, one that ranks as one of the most ambitious in recent cinema and while it’s not quite the perfect survival story that Gravity was, it comes pretty damn close.