If the rumblings from director Alexander Gonzalez Inarritu and his intrepid cast and crew about The Revenant being the most tumultuous, challenging shoot of their lives, it’s all in service of the loftiest of causes one could achieve: to produce great art. I say that without pretension or monocle wagging patronization, and mark my words: The Revenant is by and far the greatest film this year, and possibly of the last decade. It is monumental in scale, meticulous in pacing and erects the fundamental pillars of the human condition so flawlessly that we feel we are watching actual history materialize before our eyes, untethered from the notion that it’s just a movie.
Let’s start with the ocular deity that is Emmanuel Lubezki: This film contains the best cinematography I have ever seen in my life. The bold location scouting is a catalyst for the prodigy of a DOP to work his ethereal magic. Time and time again throughout the film I found myself marvelling at the stunning patience and skill displayed by the man in attaining his precious shots, constantly chafed by what I imagine was an impossibly stressful environment, bogged down by time constraints and the pure, uncaring call of nature itself. He shot with natural light for all but one scene, an unimaginable achievement that plays out in endless beauty that rocks your soul to its foundation for the entire two and a half hour running time. The locations, lovingly culled from deep within northern Canada and briefly Argentina, are an unforgiving cacophony of serene snowfalls, cascading rivers and jagged, untamed mountain ranges. This is the landscape I have grown up in and call home and to such holy places captured with such reverence on film, gilding a story of such primordial importance had me next to tears.
Leonardo DiCaprio pulls out all the stops in his ferocious portrayal of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who lives by his feral gut instinct alone, attempting to guide his fur trapping expedition through the terrain while looking out for his half Pawnee Native son who he already rescued from aching tragedy years before. After a harrowing raid in the dawning minutes of the film that makes it abundantly clear how serious the film intends to be, he and a small band of men are stranded and forced to contend with the land, and the threat of the natives finding them. Glass then gets attacked by a bear in a nerve shattering sequence that had my adrenal glands running a marathon. The frank, unapologetic nature in which the scene plays out reminds us all that nature isn’t our playground of opportunity and commerce, but a living organism that can bite the hand that it refuses to feed with alarming abandon. The sheer level of carnage inflicted upon Glass by both beast and man will shake you to your core, as will the excellent makeup and CGI effects that drive the point deep into your retinas. Tom Hardy disappears into his role better than Glass’s expedition blends into the treacherous blizzards, playing John Fitzgerald, a cowardly motherfucker who is content to leave Glass to the elements and seek fortune elsewhere, dragging sympathetic Jim Bridger (Will Poulter, excellent) along with him. The military component of their expedition (Domhall Gleeson, superb) suspects Fitzgerald and is wary. Hardy is the very definition of an acting chameleon, and disappears headlong into the role that had me riveted, and rooting for a best supporting actor win. The entire cast was subjected to a brutal nine weeks exposed to the elements, each other, and the raw, archetypal narrative of the piece that was being made, and each of them shows it in spades.
At its core it’s a revenge piece, spurred by aching character interaction involving Leo and his family in affecting flashbacks. Leo goes through somewhat of a transformation here.. He loses all he has left to an uncaring, cold faced world that would sooner see him tossed around a moss stained forest in pieces than avenged. But his Hugh Glass rages against the dying of the light right alongside Lubezki’s lens, creating in tandem the perfect voyage of a man who has become so consumed with the forces of nature in his quest to attain some semblance of his former self, that he has become somewhat of an element himself. Leo truly deserves gold this time around.
Adventure/survival epics are my favourite. This one stands out, and yet.. does more than that, if possible. It delves deep into the lush, echoing vastness of the past and pulls forth a story so human, so recognizable, in such a force of construction where the fruits of everyone’s labour are so obvious, it can’t help but be worshipped as a classic in the art form of cinema and a treatise on how to excel in every single area of the medium.