Pushing both brutal realism and extravagant visual poetry to the edges of what one customarily finds in mainstream American filmmaking, director/co-writer Alejandro G. Inarritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and a vast team of visual effects wizards have created a sensationally vivid and visceral portrait of human endurance under very nearly intolerable conditions; this is a film that makes you quite glad to have been born in a century with insulation and central heating. The combination of stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, the director and critical enthusiasm in most quarters will make this Fox release a must for audiences in search of cinematic red meat (something the story offers up in abundance, and mostly uncooked), although vegetarians and viewers with otherwise delicate constitutions could spend half their time squirming with their sweaters pulled up over their eyes.
For a director who normally takes several years between films, Inarritu has remarkably turned around his most ambitious physical production within just one year of his awards-laden Birdman. Even the untutored eye would quickly recognize this as the work of the same key talents; The Revenant may use plenty of cuts and is set nearly entirely outdoors, but the fluid, prowling, sometimes gasp-inducing camera moves, along with the great depth of field, are the same. And both films are about men on the brink, in severe extremis, a condition that helps justify and sustain Inarritu's artistic high-wire act. It's Jeremiah Johnson meets Apocalypse Now.
Set in 1823 in the Rockies, less than two decades after Lewis and Clark led their map-altering, continent-opening expedition through the territory, the story is based on actual people whose real names are used in the film as well as in Michael Punke's 2002 novel, upon which the script is quite accurately described as being "based in part." In a way, the biggest difference between the novel and the film is that the former is aided by a map, very specific descriptions of the proximity of rivers, forts and other landmarks, which provide clear indications of how far the gravely injured hero must travel to get to what might pass for civilization in this context but certainly not in any other.
Inarritu shares screenplay credit with Mark L. Smith, whose prior creative endeavors lie in the realm of low-budget horror (Séance, the Vacancy duo, The Hole), and the script immediately ups the story's existential ante by deliberately not revealing how long a journey mountain man Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) might be facing, or whether he has any realistic hope of finding any place with a roof over it. On top of this, any temptation to provide the central character with interior monologues to reveal his anguished thoughts and feelings has been resisted; for most of the running time, he is limited to expressing himself via painful grunts and cries and very heavy breathing.
A startling early skirmish between the local Pawnee tribe and a contingent of white trappers serves notice as to the level of brutal realism the film intends to deliver; the whoosh and sudden impact of arrows may never have been more vividly rendered, nor perhaps the sense of panic, confusion, horse speed and arbitrariness of who survives and who does not.
Glass, who previously served as the inspiration for the title character played by Richard Harris in director Richard C. Sarafian's conspicuously less compelling Man in the Wilderness in 1971, is a man of two worlds. He has lived with the Pawnees for some time, speaks their language, married a native woman and is raising their son, but, by virtue of knowledge of the territory, he's highly valued by the hunting expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).
Their ranks decimated and with winter closing in, the white men decide to head back, which brings on the scene, 25 minutes in, that which no one who sees it will soon forget (and which will certainly pass through the mind of any viewer who in future takes a hike through bear country). While taking a rest in the forest, Glass is charged by a mother grizzly bear. The man injures her with the one shot he gets off from his long-barreled rifle but then can do nothing as the incensed creature slaps, claws, bites, rips open and steps on him with her giant paws before retreating. Beyond the sheer terror she provokes, the bear's behavior is fascinating to observe; for a good while, she sniffs and assesses her adversary closely, both in the manner of a cook judging the seasoning of a dish and a kid deciding about whether to play with a toy any longer. She retreats ... and then comes back for more.
Previous renditions of such interspecies hand-to-hand battles have invariably been conveyed via a flurry of quick cutting to convey violent action while concealing the lack of real contact. Thanks to extraordinary visual effects work, Inarritu can deliver this scene with an unprecedented degree of realism in a single shot, the impact of which is devastating. It's the latest and most startling example of the most sophisticated technology used in the cause of ultrarealism as opposed to fantasy.
The physical result of the bear's assault looks like something you normally find hanging in a meat locker. The last words Glass's wife said to him before she died were "keep breathing," and it's a command the man struggles to obey even when no one expects him to live. When weather and steep terrain make carrying the invalid impossible, the departing party leaves two men to tend to him, the hulking, ill-tempered John Fitzgerald (Hardy) and earnest youngster Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). But after a couple of days, the duplicitous Fitzgerald all but buries Glass alive and abandons him as winter begins to close in, eventually lying to Henry that Glass died.
Glass' struggle to survive occupies the core of the story and it's a compelling, harrowing, sometimes challenging ordeal to behold, something beyond the reach of most mortals. Deprived even of his weapons by Fitzgerald, wracked with pain and wheezing with every breath, the man can't even walk at first and is reduced to dragging himself, inch by excruciating inch, in search of food, places to rest and ways to keep himself from freezing. Little by little, he finds ways to cope, starting a small fire, catching fish by hand, curling up inside a warm animal carcass. Glass encounters evidence of other violence involving the Sioux as well as a French trapping expedition, and there are visually astounding moments when the man gets swept down a series of rapids in a frigid river (DiCaprio and five personal stunt doubles doubtless suffered the consequences) and goes over a cliff on horseback (which Inarritu and Lubezki contrived to cover in an uncut take). The wonders never cease.
After about an hour of screen time, Glass manages to make his way to the fort, exposing Fitzgerald's lie. But his deceptions know no limits and he makes his escape, which obliges Glass to set out once again in attempt to achieve revenge and justice in an elaborate and gory Western mano a mano.
The very different settings may disguise the fact, but the recent film The Revenant actually resembles a great deal is Gravity, the outer space smash directed by Inarritu's friend and colleague Alfonso Cuaron. Both are solitary survival stories set in deeply inhospitable environments where human beings cannot survive without the aid of man-made equipment, not to mention uncanny resourcefulness. Both are projects dependent upon the long-term commitment and charisma of a top star to get them made, the advances in special visual effects to make them seamlessly credible and the brilliance of cinematographer Lubezki to provide the highest level of visual astonishment. Both projects were big gambles even for filmmakers as accomplished as these two to take on. And they both pulled them off.
Obscured by heavy animal skins, a scruffy beard and even longer hair, DiCaprio perseveres with a deeply committed characterization that embodies reserves of strength, resilience, imagination, fortitude and righteousness, all attributes required for long-term survival in the earliest days on the North American frontier.
Sporting a bizarre accent that could be described as pre-hillbilly specked with traces of indeterminate lower-class 19th century urban, the equally disheveled-looking Hardy creates a genuinely disturbing character whose primary trait is untrustworthiness on a psychotic level. This year alone, the actor has created at least four memorable big screen characterizations in which you can't really understand everything he says, and Hardy far exceeds the basic requirement for this role, which was to portray a man so despicable that the audience desperately wants to see him get his just desserts. Gleeson and Poulter are very good in the principal other roles of note.
Inarritu makes the interesting decision to break the fourth wall, so to speak, in three instances, to acknowledge the presence of the camera in relation to the actors. Not once but twice, he gets in so close to DiCaprio that the actor's breath fogs the lens. The director presumably could have chosen alternate takes but decided to use these; it's difficult to think of other examples of this happening in a major Hollywood feature. Then, at a very key moment, DiCaprio looks right into the lens, a move that throws you for a split-second but then achieves the greater effect of establishing a more intense relationship with the suffering Glass has endured.
Lubezki's camera wizardry has been duly noted and rewarded for years and his extraordinary work here under hugely difficult conditions will only add to his laurels. Inarritu went out of his way to select locations (mostly in the mountains north of Calgary, Alberta, then in Argentina for the climactic sequence when the snow melted early in Canada) that had never been seen in the cinema before. The intention was to create the feeling of virgin territory, land unfamiliar to the white characters as well as the audience. Using very short lenses to produce great depth of field, Lubezki shot entirely with natural light, which mostly, but not entirely, results in soft grayish skies that, due to the season, seem only half-lit.
It has been noted before, but The Revenant indicates, more than any film Lubezki has shot, the influence of the Russian team of director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky on his work. The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba are well known in the United States, Letter Never Sent (1959) less so, but it's the latter film's amazing, long, often hand-held takes moving through dense brush, forests (at one point on fire), lakes, downpours and snow storms that clearly look like early models for what Lubezki achieves and, admittedly, surpasses here.
Having handled such notable prior evocations of frontier America as Days of Heaven, The New World and There Will Be Blood, production designer Jack Fisk is entirely in his element here, as is another Terrence Malick regular, costume designer Jacqueline West. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, with additional music by Bryce Dessner, is effectively ominous and grim.