Spoiler Alert…I guess.
You can spoil a film, which I am about to mildly do, but you cannot spoil reality, hence my hesitancy to cite spoiler alert. Surely you can spoil the narrative construct of The Revenant as the film’s trailers most definitely came pretty damn close to doing, but you simply cannot spoil what has already happened in our reality; that ideology is asinine and ridiculous. Given that the purpose of my mild spoiling, should you wish to dub it as such, is for comparative purposes between the narrative of the film and the true events, I think it only fair to say just one more time, spoiler alert. You have been warned, but to be fair, I am not spoiling much you could not already guess. The premise of The Revenant is a man seeking revenge against the man who murdered his son and left him for dead after he was mauled by a grizzly bear. The trailers for the film, as well as the vast majority of the film’s marketing campaign, showcase this aspect of the film’s narrative, and if you have been following that campaign and have seen those trailers, you are probably well versed in that information. If you take the time to Google the true events, you will undoubtedly find some information that contradicts the film’s narrative. Hugh Glass did not have a son, ever. Nor did he kill the grizzly bear independently, but with the assistance of the two men who later left him for dead, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, who fired multiple shots into the bear while Glass stabbed it repeatedly with his knife. And you will further find that while he was left for dead, and he did traverse from the forks of the Grand River to Fort Kiowa, some two hundred miles of crawling and walking, he did not end up exacting his revenge on Fitzgerald and Bridger. He let Bridger, who was in his teens, go free because of his age, and he had no choice but to allow the enlisted Fitzgerald to go free also, as killing anyone enlisted in the Amy at the time was illegal. He was given his stolen possessions back, including his distinguishable hunting rifle, and was later shot, scalped and mutilated by Arikara Indians a decade after the bear attack while working for the Army as a fur trapper and trader.
After watching The Revenant for the first time, and enduring what I can only call a completely overwhelming, deeply resonant, nearly depressive film as The Revenant most assuredly is, at films end I could not help but wonder if how I felt was how so many others before me must have felt after watching such films as Apocalypse Now, Aguirre Wrath of God, Once Upon A Time In America, Fitzcarraldo, The Great Silence, Exodus (1960), or Apocalypto, to name a few films that I find to be cinematic equivalents of The Revenant, for the first time in theatres. My mind wandered more from the time I left the theatre until a few hours later when my head came to rest upon my pillow, given that I have only ever been able to watch those other films in the comfort of my own home, never on a grand screen in a packed theatre, the sound of silence filling the room…I wonder even in this moment what it would have been like to witness such majestic pictures for the first time in such a manner. I reckon seeing The Revenant the way I did is surely the closest I will ever come to seeing something like Aguirre in theatres for awhile.
I wonder even further as I type away at this review, as to how strenuous and grueling the process of working on this film, in the dirt, mud, snow, and water, must have been for Leonardo DiCaprio, more than any other actor in the film. How it must have felt to dig down deep into the darkest trenches of one’s innermost soul and find every drop of pain, anger, frustration, and grief, and conjure those feelings to the surface but never put them into garrulous banter, just palpable expressing and body movement. I cannot fathom literally crawling through the dirt and snow, or eating raw bison liver, all in the name of art and the end result, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. There, I said it. Masterpiece. The Revenant is a masterpiece, that word I do not throw around often in fear of overuse and redundancy. That coveted word people use so often it has begun to slowly lose the impact that hides behinds the letters of the word. Masterpiece fits The Revenant the way your hand fits a glove. If I have anything of a negative nature to get out if my system, it would be that the hallucinatory dreams of Hugh Glass, while powerful, serene, and beautifully arranged, are completely unnecessary to the film, and in no way did they enhance my experience or my sympathy for Hugh Glass. But damn, they sure caught my eye. Aside from this misstep, a visual metaphor of some unexplained magnitude which one comes to expect from its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, I took no other issues with the film. I understand the necessities of constructing a fictional son for Fitzgerald to murder and Glass to mourn and seek revenge in honour of, and allowing him to achieve his revenge as opposed to the non-violent real conclusion of Glass’ journey of revenge. Modern audiences are unlikely to understand the non-violent conclusion and instead crave bloodthirsty vengeance as Glass does in the film, and to appease that sensibility the filmmakers had to compromise truth for fiction. Because sometimes we do not need the truth, and do not mind being lied to, especially in the name of good cinema. Which is kind of weird. Do not try to think about that for too long, you will get a headache.
Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald takes on the personification of not quite pure evil, but evil in the form of greed and cowardice. Given that not much is known about the man beyond the fact that he was a trapper and trader like Glass, that he helped Glass kill the bear along with Bridger, and he did rob Glass and leave him for dead, the logical manner in which to tackle the character is to give him a backstory we can understand and perhaps sympathize with, which the filmmakers delivered in spades. We learn about an attempted scalping by Indians of poor Fitzgerald’s head, how he felt the blood fill his nostrils, how he choked on the blood from his head, and if my memory is serving me correctly, how he survived the ordeal. I do not know that this aspect of the character and his respective history stands out to the average cinema goer in such an overwhelming film, but the thought of what that must have been like for the character, despite the likely fictitious nature of this aspect, is quite honestly, nothing but sheer horror in my own mind. In his interpretation of Fitzgerald, Hardy allows the audience to witness both sides of the man. We see his hasty and impatient way of wanting to kill off Glass or suspecting he will not survive the night, not wanting to stick around and help Glass but instead tearing off into the horizon after killing Glass’ son Hawk (a fine Forrest Goodluck in his first feature role). We see his greed, his insatiable desire for money at all cost, be it through theft or sticking around to help Glass for three hundred dollars Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson in the kind of role his father Brendan could ace, and he himself does strong work with) will pay him. We also bear witness to how in his greed and desperation for survival, his cowardice comes out, and he becomes afraid, unstable, violent, and uncaring. In his last moments you feel the fear in his actions, his struggle to survive in his last breaths against all odds against him, and in that Hardy creates a dimensionality, a true sense of humanity and realism incarnate that most villains these days lack on film.
Much has been made about the worn out internet joke of how Leonardo DiCaprio has been robbed repeatedly for years on end of Oscars for various performances, and how he may once again lose, leading to yet another year of hoping he will one day win the coveted award. I hope the joking will end in the upcoming Oscars, and that Leo will walk away with a most deserved Oscar. But I think that when the time comes, should he win, he wins not out of sympathy, or because the film is some kind of Oscar bait with its tale of survival and a gifted character actor committing so intensely to a physically demanding role, falling into that internet-ridiculed category of “they lost weight or whatever so they won”, but because Leo has truly earned the award. Sure he ate raw bison liver, and did all this physical stuff that most actors would have nightmares about, and that all helps create the persona of the character and gives life to what could easily be a one dimensional action flick archetype, but that is not why he should win. I think he should win because we walk away from The Revenant with the ability to show sympathy toward Hugh Glass and his journey into revenge. Every time he gets bitten and clawed by the grizzly, we jerk in horror, we feel his pain, and can imagine how truly terrifying it would be being mauled by a relentless predatory animal like said grizzly. When his son is killed in front of him, again we can fathom his pain, this time emotional, as we watch as he also does, as his son gets stabbed by Fitzgerald. When Glass crawls out of his grave, pulling himself along by his bare fingers, his entire body dragging along the black soil, we share more of his pain, and hope we may never have to crawl to survival. As his journey to safety and to revenge continues, as he is attacked by repulsive French soldiers and endures hundreds of miles of exhaustive, brutal weather and terrain, each drag of his body, every step on his broken right leg, every whip of chilled air to the exposed portions of his scarred, mutilated body, every drop of freezing river waters and freshly fallen snow as merciless as the last…we slowly come to the conclusion that if we had to endure what Glass has been through, we too, would feel that undying determination to surge forward in pursuit of our ultimate goal, revenge, and that Leo has managed to convey every ounce of this determination with nothing more than his facial expressions and subtle body movements. Watch his face during the infamous rape-less bear attack (seriously, people truly are strange) each time the bear tears into his backside or his chest, or bites his hands or claws his throat wide open, see him struggle beneath the might of the beast as it tries to crush his chest. See the terror on his face, and that pure near animalistic need to survive burning in his eyes, and try to convince me you did not emotionally invest in his survival, and completely buy his performance. Of course, he already deserved an Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, Leo’s finest screen performance to date.
The Revenant is for my money’s worth, in all likelihood the best film I have had the pleasure of seeing theatrically over the course of my life. I cannot think of another film I have seen in theatres that is as alive and and powerful as The Revenant. It is brought to life not just by the dynamic cast of stupendous character actors, but also by the breathtakingly gorgeous British Columbia and Argentina landscapes, beautifully photographed by the maestro Emmanuel Lubezki, and the sound Judgement and watchful eye of Alejandro Iñárritu. As great as some films from the 2015 season are, almost nothing seems to come close to being as immaculate as The Revenant, with the exception of The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s irrefutable masterpiece.
It has only been a couple of day since I bore witness to the majestic achievement in cinema, and already I cannot stop thinking about nearly every second that passes by. It is as if the film itself has burrowed into my mind in eerie permanence. It is quite the dark trip into a kind of hell that used to await us not too long ago in mankind’s elaborate North American frontier history, where guns, tomahawks, knives and our bare hands were the foundations of our very survival, and our guide is the stubborn, relentless, undaunted Hugh Glass, taking our naive soft hands in his filthy torn hands, and single handedly dragging us into an elongated, contemplative, bloody battle of wits against the elements and men. A world where only the strong survive. A world of wolves thriving amongst dying sheep, not going gently into the night.