Way back in 2014 I wrote an article about Leonardo DiCaprio’s lack of Oscar representation. He’s achieved many fantastic performances over the years; Blood Diamond, The Departed, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to name a few. But despite a few nominations, the obligatory touch of grace on his ‘loser’ face, and the fanboy/girl outcry, he just keeps on losing.
But no more. The Revenant is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and for that reason the 88th Academy Awards are his, all thanks to his grizzly portrayal of frontiersman Hugh Glass.
Much has been written about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sprawling revenge epic, the extreme conditions, resentful crew, technical perfection, and of course the performances. But with such grand vision the end product had to deliver and The Revenant does just that.
With some of the greatest location shots I have ever seen, combined with the sole use of natural lighting and ultra-specific conditions Iñárritu and DoP Lubezki have pulled out all the stops to ensure The Revenant is an even greater masterpiece than their work on last year’s Best Picture winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Everything is heightened by an unerring sense of viscera that permeates each and every shot, knowing when to pause for visual effect and when to delve straight back into the action gives the whole picture a nice sense of balance.
In 1823 an American band of trappers, skinning their wares in the Northern states of the Louisiana Purchase, are ambushed by a rallying war-party of Ree tribesmen. Glass, the group’s scout, is out with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk, hunting elk, when the sounds of gunfire echo through the dense wilderness. Returning to a brutal, lawless battlefield the American trappers head for the boat moored up just beyond the tree line led by Captain Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) and rallied by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).
Iñárritu does a fantastic job of setting up the local conflict within the escapees that immediately draws on the themes of revenge and justice, hiding in plain sight throughout. Fitzgerald is a racist, dishevelled brute who has seen too much life and death to care about anything other than his paycheck. Hardy manages this performance marvellously, harnessing the contemporary tensions of the period the audience aren’t left in the dark, shining a necessary spotlight on Indian issues previously unseen.
Central to this exposure is Fitzgerald’s attitude to Hawk and Glass’ consequential paternal defence. Humanising Indian history in such a way is game-changing in American cinema and the reward is highly satisfying as the film transpires. From abstract cinematography (of notable mention: as Glass’ wife dies from a gunshot a small bird emerges from the wound, symbolising the evacuation of the soul), to the closing exchange of glances, The Revenant tears down de-humanising barriers that stand in the way of “fairness in representation“.
But, while this story is honourable to the sensitivities of Indian history and culture it very much takes place in the background of Glass’ tale of retribution and vengeance. Although the party of American trappers escape down river they are constantly aware of the Ree, tracking them down. Unbeknownst to the remainder of Captain Henry’s now shaken trappers the Ree are not in pursuit for the sake of violence, but in search of their Chief’s daughter, Powaqa who was kidnapped by a group of white men.
Glass and Henry agree that desposing of the boat and making the journey back to their fort on foot is safer but when Glass leaves the group to scout aheadand his mauled by a grizzly bear Captain Henry is faced with a serious dilemma.
Simultaneously necessary to the group’s safe navigation back to the fort and a liability to their survival Glass is no longer their way out but an obstacle standing in the way. But when Glass is left for dead by Fitzgerald he sets out on a path of revenge embodying the titular revenant with grit and determination.
The brutal realism of Glass’ insufferable journey of recovery and requital affords Iñárritu with great opportunities to test DiCaprio’s acting resolve. Chewing on raw bison, submerging him in freezing water, and exposing him to subzero temperatures are not just impressive examples of Leo’s commitment to the role but also Iñárritu’s incredible appreciation of the beauty and power of mother nature. Thus allowing Lubezki the opportunity to flex his cinematographic prowess beyond the ego of Birdman and into the vast humility of nature.
The Revenant is not a gung-ho tale of blockbuster retribution. It’s a slow-burning story of retribution, justice, and fair representation. Taking care with the little things and time with the epic shots pays off in this visual masterpiece. A grizzly affair complemented by brutal realism and stunning symbolism (Glass’ rebirth being a highlight) The Revenant is a Must-see for anyone passionate about ground-breaking cinema, Oscar worthy performances or tall revenge epics.
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~ “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight” ~