There must have been several people who thought that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was mad for wanting to try and make something like “The Revenant.” I imagine the reaction to him wanting to go off into the Canadian wilderness and film under very specific conditions for several months was much like when Sir David Lean said that he wanted to go off into the desert for two years to make a film about T.E. Lawrence. It was bold, ambitious, and could have ended in complete disaster, but there was enough faith in Inarritu’s previous work (he had been nominated for two Oscars for the excellent “Babel”) for him to be allowed to try and bring his vision for the film to life.
Little did everyone know that, during the filming of this project, he would pick up three well-deserved Oscars for his masterpiece “Birdman,” a film that was also of great ambition, and which showed off his incredible skills as a director, writer, and producer. As if often the case, this immediately caused all eyes to focus on what Inarritu would do next, and as if there wasn’t already enough pressure, “The Revenant” quickly became one of the most hotly-anticipated films of the year, but at long last, it’s time to see if this seemingly-insane venture paid off.
In the 1820s, a group of fur trappers is on an expedition in the uncharted American wilderness where they face numerous dangers, including freezing temperatures and attacks from Native Americans. When the latter forces them to flee with their pelts, they are forced to take a different route back to their base, as opposed to taking the boat they originally traveled on. On their return journey, the expedition’s scout, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is savagely mauled by a bear, but luckily survives thanks to his fast-acting fellow hunters. With Glass being close to death, the men have no choice but to carry him along, a notion which is clearly objected to by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who feels that he is merely slowing them down and that a mercy killing would be in everyone’s best interest.
When circumstances force a few men to stay behind to help Glass while the rest of the men continue on, Fitzgerald volunteers, along with Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Shortly after, Fitzgerald tries to finish off Glass, but ends up being forced to murder Hawk instead when he makes a commotion over the attempt to smother his father. Fitzgerald quickly comes up with a plan to trick Bridger into leaving Glass behind to die, saying that he’s spotted Native Americans nearby, only Glass isn’t quite ready to give up.
Miraculously, he continues on by himself, starting an epic journey that sees him face all kinds of peril on a quest for revenge that will take him hundreds of miles across the wilderness.
The first thing that’s going to strike any viewer of “The Revenant” is its dazzling beauty. Working once again with master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (two-time Oscar winner for “Gravity” and “Birdman”), Inarritu has used the actual Canadian wilderness as the backdrop for this grand story of survival and revenge, capturing the isolation and the staggering enormity of the gorgeous landscape. Along with it comes the bitter cold of the relentless snows that are almost constantly coming down upon Glass as he tries to make his way back to civilization.
Aside from the film’s physical beauty, one will also drink in the film’s technical brilliance. Lubezki is second-to-none, giving us shots that flow marvelously, sometimes for minutes at a time. He, along with Inarritu, made the interesting decision to use only natural light for each scene to heighten the film’s realism, and the result can only be described as jaw-dropping as the natural attributes of the land are allowed to shine through without any outside interference. Even after having won the cinematography Oscar the last two years in a row, don’t be surprised in the least if you should here Lubezki’s name called a third time, which would mark the first time in history that it’s happened.
Of course, Inarritu’s brilliant direction must be mentioned as well. What’s particularly fascinating is that this is in stark contrast to his previous film, “Birdman.” For that film, most of the scenes were indoors where he had complete control over all of the elements, whereas with “The Revenant,” almost all of the scenes are outdoors in isolated areas where there is practically no control. Coordinating this massive project was obviously no easy task, but the very fact that he was able to bring all of this together in such conditions, and have it turn out this well, is just another mark of his great skill.
As with any film though, the look is one thing while the story is something else altogether. Here’s where Inarritu’s ambitious epic hits what’s pretty much its only stumbling block. The story, inspired by actual events, is thrilling at times, and has you wondering what’s going to happen next every step of the way. However, it does end up being a little long-winded as it goes along. You can admire the beauty of the landscape and how well it’s made, all while enjoying the tense story, but for those times when it starts to linger for a little too long throughout its 156-minute runtime, you do start to wish that it would get a move on. In other words, there didn’t really seem to be any reason that this needed to be two and a half hours (two hours probably would have been just fine), but at least the film’s other major pluses help to hold it up during its more languid passages.
Speaking of its major pluses, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance deserves much of the credit for making the film work as well as it does. He gives an absolutely committed portrayal of Glass, delivering a turn that is unlike anything we’ve seen from him before, and by his own admission, is the hardest role he has ever taken on. Much of the film is a one-man show of him simply trying to survive in the unforgiving wilderness, and by giving it his all, he helps keep it a mostly-gripping experience, especially during those downtimes mentioned earlier. Credit must also be given to Tom Hardy for playing the focus of Glass’ revenge. Hardy gives us a character that is completely without heart, willing to drop a life in a split second if it helps save his or profits him in some way. This is the kind of guy you love to hate, and makes you wish all the more that Glass will find him and deliver a little vengeance.
By the end of this epic journey, you just can’t help but be in awe of the ambition and scope of “The Revenant,” and while it may be a little longer than it needed to be, there’s no denying that this is top-notch work from Inarritu, Lubezki, and DiCaprio (who could finally nab his first Oscar with this astonishing performance). It’s a grand adventure that delivers on its tale of survival and revenge, and though it might be a little too intense for some, it’s ultimately well-worth the two and a half hours to experience one of the most breathtaking films of the year. 3.5/4 stars.
Starts today in limited release. Expands nationwide on January 8th.
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