There have already been thousands of words written about how difficult The Revenant was to make, whether from the point of view of the actors or the filmmakers. Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly almost drowned, froze and starved during filming and Tom Hardy apparently choked director Alejandro G. Iñárritu over the harsh set conditions. Multiple crew members left or were fired and, due to Iñárritu's insistence on only using natural light for filming, the budget ballooned from $60 million to $135 million. Books will probably be written about the experience of making The Revenant and rightfully so, but none of it matters if the final film isn't something worthwhile; something worthy of what the men and women went through to make it. The answer to that is a resounding yes, but with some less resounding reservations.
The Revenant is based on the novel by Michael Punke, which recounts the true story of Hugh Glass, an experienced hunter and trapper who was left for dead by his hunting party after he was mangled in a bear attack. His return to civilization and subsequent hunt for revenge is the primary focus of the film, with small character moments sprinkled throughout.
DiCaprio is fantastic as Glass. While there is always a bit of himself left in every performance that he can't erase, his commitment here will be remembered come Oscar season. Every time he crawls across snowy and frozen ground or floats in frigid waters, we feel his pain and root for his survival. The script never fully forms Glass as anything other than the experiences that he is going through and when it tries, as in his more hallucinatory moments remembering his wife and son, the film flirts with a sentimentality it doesn't need and can't afford.
As good as DiCaprio is, Tom Hardy is even better as John Fitzgerald, the man who not only leaves Glass to die, but murders Glass' son in the attempt. As despicable as Fitzgerald is, Hardy never plays him as an outright villain. Hardy's skill is almost unparalleled in film acting right now and his ability to let us in to every private thought, every uncertain moment that Fitzgerald has is astounding. We might not like John Fitzgerald and we are most definitely rooting for Glass to take his revenge, but we always understand him and even empathize with him.
Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is second to none and the locations look as deadly as untamed nature can be. As the primary cinematographer for some of film's greatest auteurs like Cuaron, Malick and Iñárritu, Lubezki takes the chaotic style of Iñárritu, marries it to the playful technicality of Cuaron and surgically grafts it onto Malick's vision of Earth outside the scope of humanity. What is left is a film that is hauntingly gorgeous for every single frame, while never quite as inviting as an adventure-epic like this should be.
One of the truly remarkable things about Iñárritu's past work like Birdman, Amores Perros, Biutiful and 21 Grams is that there is always a lot going on beneath the surface and repeated viewings enhance the experience each and every time. In The Revenant, all the subtext is text, so there is nothing to be gained from another viewing other than to marvel at the direction, cinematography and acting. While those are always good reasons to revisit a film, Iñárritu's work has traditionally demanded more from an audience than this film does. The pretensions of depth are still there with some interesting dream sequences and abstract imagery, but the film is still just an exceptionally well-made revenge thriller whether or not that is what was intended.
The Revenant might not stick in the brain the way Birdman and Biutiful do, but the fact that it even exists is miraculous. Judged on the merits of the film and not the stories about the experience of making it, we have an old-fashioned epic adventure film and that is always a reason to rejoice.
Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu
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