“You breathe…keep breathing.”
One part tale of bloodthirsty revenge, one part tale of undying love, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a film of extremes. Extremes of blisteringly cold weather, of violently bloody massacres but also of paternal devotion and tenderness that is almost shocking in its thoughtfulness. Following up after the fanciful fantasy of his Oscar-winning Birdman, Iñárritu goes back to his darker days for this tale of survival and brutality.
In 1820s Montana, navigator named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his fur trapping company are set upon by a band of Native Americans (the Arikara tribe) bent on stealing back the pelts they believe to be rightfully theirs. It’s a sequence of bravura film making from all sides. Raw and unflinching, it’s filled with long takes and swirling movements that put you right in the middle of the fight, looking around in all directions at what’s coming at you. Heavily battered and forced to flee, the band of men make it to one of their boats to barely escape. This sets the stage for Glass and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) to be challenged by a rival trapper, John Fitzgerald (played either Tom Hardy or someone from Mumford & Sons) for decision-making power. As Hawk is half-Pawnee Indian, Fitzgerald begins to terrorize and taunt him.
While on the run from the Arikara, Glass forages for food in the forest and comes upon a pair of bear cubs. There isn’t a second that passes though before mother bear comes barreling from the bushes and viciously defends her cubs with hostile urgency. She bites, tosses, stomps, crushes. It’s the most grueling and in your face moment of the film, with the mother bear’s face so close to the camera it fills with the fog of her hot, snarly breath. More crunching, more blood. A momentary pause, Glass tries to crawl away. No such luck, it begins again. Two actually manage to tussle for a bit and then tumble down a ravine, the bear collapsing on top of Glass. He is alive, but just barely.
It is here that Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson in a great performance) decision to not bring Glass with them and for Fitzgerald, Hawk and young Jim Bridger (a superb and baby-faced Will Poulter from We’re the Millers) to stay back until Glass dies to give him a “proper burial.” Just when you think you’ve seen the most vicious attack, Fitzgerald commits an act of cowardice and evil so profound that it’s the catalyst for the entire film. Fitzgerald then drags the still-living Glass to a shallow grave and leaves him for dead. That quote at the beginning, “You breathe…keep breathing,” comes from the last words Glass speaks to his Pawnee Indian wife before she’s killed (which takes place before the events of the film). What then begins is a 200-mile trail of vengeance and harrowing bravery.
To call Leonardo DiCaprio committed here would be an understatement. His perseverance, his stamina and his strength and resilience mirror the struggle of Glass moment for moment. DiCaprio has gone to great length to physically embody his characters from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to The Aviator but with The Revenant he has given the performance of his life. He has never been better and everything coalesces as if his entire career led up to this role, to the performance. It’s a masterwork and it will finally get him an Oscar.
So, let’s talk about Tom Hardy. The guy is a ham, period. In his third film this year, attempting a fourth accent, Hardy goes so far over the top of his co-stars that he stands out like a ripped scalp. To break it down, he sounds like if Tommy Lee Jones was auditioning for Kathy Bates’ Baltimore bearded lady part from American Horror Story: Freak Show. Yeah, it’s kinda that bad. “But Erik,” people will say, “You gave it four stars. How can you give it four stars with a criticism like that?” Well, because in a story of extremes like this, Hardy as a moustache-twirling villain makes sense. He doesn’t need shading or humanity because he has none. What he does provide though is some pitch black gallows humor at times, which is quite welcome.
Ryûichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto’s score is majestic and haunting in the right degrees and a perfect fit with imagery from Emmanuel Lubezki that is sometimes so breathtaking you won’t believe it’s real. Arguably the greatest working cinematographer in film today, Lubeski takes great pains to linger on details that seem mundane or to allow a moment of reprieve from the bone-crunching violence to witness the beauty of nature, of light and of flashes of humanity.
Indulgent and fetishistic in its own grandiosity, The Revenant is a grim but beautiful fable, an ambitious story of morals and purpose but of family and love. It’s powerful and compassionate right to the very last shot.