If this doesn’t get Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar I honestly don’t know what will. One can only eat so many raw animal parts before the Academy has to take notice. There are no charming smiles or twinkles in the eye here; The Revenant takes a cue from DiCaprio’s accidental hand-gashing in Django Unchained and says, “Hmm, yes, more of that, please.”
Meanwhile in Canada, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the guide in a 1820s trapping party. All is fine for the group of 40-some American woodsmen until they are attacked by vengeful Arikara warriors. The trappers flee by boat with only 10 men left standing. Some distance down the riverbank, they decide that the best way to lose the Arikara is on foot, so they bury their pelts and start walking. While most are focused on rushing to safety, the hassle and evasion further irritates the already irritable and anxious to be paid, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). During their hike, Glass wanders into the woods and is gruesomely, relentlessly, creatively mauled by a bear (who, for equality’s sake, is as much an Oscar contender as anyone). Too wounded to walk, roll over, or speak, Glass is one burden too many for the exhausted troupe. They decide to leave him behind with his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Bridger the idealist (Will Poulter), and pain in the ass Fitzgerald (who’s promised a healthy bonus), until Glass is either ready to walk or ready to die. Fitzgerald suffers the waiting for two days before deciding to kill Hawk and leave Glass for dead. Only, Glass isn’t so very dead. Glass claws his way out of the shallow grave and drags his gashed, swollen, frostbitten, feverish, broken body across half of frozen Alberta to seek revenge on the fast-talking, slow-thinking Fitzgerald.
I take pride in the fact that The Revenant was filmed in the bare bones of the Canadian wilderness – although I doubt it will have the same impact that The Lord of the Rings had on New Zealand. That is, unless frostbite, ice-beards, wind storms, and dead horse blankets are up your alley… In which case, we politely ask you to stay away. The setting is as important a feature as any since, next to DiCaprio and Hardy, the third most prominent character in The Revenant is the trees. They signify everything from deliriousness to anxiety. And with natural light being director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s absolute rule, each frame brings you uncomfortably close to Glass’ surroundings.
Where a film normally progresses at the cue of directional dialogue, The Revenant swaps all that for rocks, trees, water, and snow. Memorizing a script comes second to conveying wonder at the path ahead, or thankfulness for a sturdy pile of kindling. In this setting, dialogue isn’t necessary. It comes down to the ability to show absolute panic in a moment when ‘Run’ is the number one instinct but your limbs are too frozen to listen. DiCaprio pops countless blood vessels on his mission to show us the limits of the body versus the ravenous pull of the mind.
And he is never safe. Even in good company, Glass is never safe. When he’s not being haunted by the ghosts of family members, he’s being hunted by Arikara who are tired of strangers taking everything they love. Glass survives as Bear Grylls never could in a landscape that feels colder than a half-submerged plank of wood in the north Atlantic. You hear about the harsh conditions that went into the filming of The Revenant, but it’s one of those see-it-to-get-it moments. Still, the stillness, the absolute solitude, and the anticipation of every nightmare lurking behind the next tree give The Revenant a kind of sublime serenity. It’s an extended introduction with the Powers That Be, and an eventual understanding that the universe will push and pull as it likes, whether you’re standing in the way or being propelled along with it.
All that greatness and there I was watching it in my mittens. There’s no doubt that The Revenant is a beautiful film which captures raw truth, unhindered beauty, and the kind of extreme film making that has rescue choppers on standby, but it’s also a total slasher. There’s something so strange and so captivating about witnessing 30 men be slaughtered (in great detail) on a river bank in a single, unbroken shot. The camera glides along seamlessly like a feather in the wind as men get drilled with arrows and turn the water red. The violence in The Revenant is as raw as the fish Glass munches on straight from the river. Every stab, both literal and metaphorical (…but mostly literal), is enough to add your own soundtrack of strained, extended inhales. While I know the blood is fake (although it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t), the reaction of ice-on-skin and hate-on-vengeance is as real as anything you’ll see in films today. DiCaprio is a wordless wonder while Hardy is completely unrecognizable in his honourless mask. The Revenant is organic, majestic, and an incomprehensible blend of nature and destructive spirit. It’s a weird, cringing kind of 9.5/10.