The Revenant Film Review: Gritty Realism And Pristine Cinematography

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Tweetable Takeaway: Leo eats bison liver and kills a bear with his bare hands in The Revenant 


This is Oscar bait.  Exceedingly good Oscar bait.  Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant is a masterfully made revenge story dripping with realism.  There were production delays, including a company move from Canada to southern Argentina, as well as a ballooning budget, (it reportedly more than doubled by the time production wrapped) but it was well worth it.  The film shows what can be done when franchise financing is given to prestige story material. 

The Revenant is based on the remarkable true story of Hugh Glass, a scout working with a fur trapping company in the Montana wilderness in 1823.  Glass was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions and took it personally, to say the least.  He spent the next few years hunting them down and exacting his revenge.  The film obviously condenses the timeline and adds some artistic flourishes, yet the principal elements of this tale of the indefatigable nature of the human spirit is kept intact. 

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Let’s set up the story.  The film opens with a fur trapping company gathering up their pelts in a Montana forest, just off a river, in early winter.  They are soon set upon by a group of Cree Indians, hunting the men who kidnapped the Chief’s daughter.  The Crees slaughter the trappers in efficient and brutal fashion.  The survivors flee to the lone boat and set off down river.  Among those in the boat are Glass, his half-Pawnee son Hawk, former criminal Fitzgerald and the expedition leader Andrew Henry.  Glass persuades Henry to beach the boat and chart a course over land.  The plan angers Fitzgerald, who must give up his pelts due to the treacherous nature of the terrain.  As Glass scouts ahead of the group he is attacked by a Grizzly bear.  He manages to kill the beast but sustains life threatening injuries in the process.  Hawk and a young Jim Bridger volunteer to stay behind and look after him while Fitzgerald accepts two hundred dollars to do the same.  Yet not long after the rest of the party leaves Fitzgerald murders Hawk in front of Glass and hoodwinks Bridger into leaving Glass to die.  Glass then fights through his grievous injuries in order to exact his revenge on Fitzgerald.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Glass and puts in one of the better performances of his remarkable .  Watching him in The Revenant is similar to viewing Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.  Nothing about Redmayne’s performance of the brilliant physicist feels extraordinary while watching the film.  Yet with further examination it is stunning how Redmayne is able to perfectly track Hawking’s physical deterioration and how effortless it comes across on screen.  DiCaprio’s performance as Glass is similar in how natural it feels.  We are never aware of how brilliant the performance is while we’re watching the film but it hits us how stellar it was minutes after the credits roll.  DiCaprio turns in another Oscar worthy performance and the pure difficulty of the role might sway the voters into awarding him the coveted golden statue.

Tom Hardy plays the perfect baddie in Fitzgerald.  A man with only his own self interest in mind, Fitzgerald presents an excellent contrast to the Glass’ pureness.  Hardy simmers with barely restrained rage and his lethality pervades the atmosphere of every scene he’s in.  Domhnall Gleeson doesn’t have much to do as Andrew Henry but his understated performance provides a much needed middle in this world of extremes.

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The Revenant is a master class in cinematography and Emmanuel Lubezki might well win a historic third consecutive Oscar for his work behind the camera.  The sweeping pans and almost constant movement add a lyrical quality to the film and help to lubricate the pacing.  Lubezki shot the film using only natural light, which meant that limited shooting hours were available each day and this necessitated each shot being meticulously planned beforehand.  This technique is essential to the theme of realism that the film is built upon.  We feel every crunch of snow and shiver at every blast of frigid wind.  The camera welcomes us into the nineteenth century frontier and we truly feel like participants in the action. 

The Revenant is a clear frontrunner for multiple awards this season and a stellar viewing experience.  Inarritu trades in the heightened surrealism of Birdman for the gritty realism of The Revenant and guides the story with a deft hand.  Knowing the difficulties that faced the production makes the finished product even more impressive.  The brutal trials of Glass remind one of Odysseus and we watch his struggles with bated breath.  This story of revenge and the struggle to survive despite incalculable odds promises to entertain and move all.

I give it 5 Grizzly bears out of 5.

Score:  5 out of 5

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John Drain | Contributor

 

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