The power of film is in its ability to create a totally immersive experience unique to any art form. We sit in a dark movie theater, aware that what we’re about to see costs millions of dollars and took hundreds of people to make, and the filmmaker’s chief task is to essentially make us forget all of that. Some may call it suspension of disbelief but it runs deeper than that: there’s an undeniable magic to those films that effortlessly transport us from time and place. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant follows this tradition with a rare kind of cinematic conviction and steadfast authenticity that will likely render it timeless.
Amongst the unsettled wilderness of the 1820s American northwest, a band of fur trappers and hunters stave off the harsh elements and Native American aggression to collect pelts for trade. After the party’s scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is viciously mauled by a grizzly bear, his severe injuries begin to hinder the group’s progress and their captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) orders three men, including hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), to tend to his wounds. After a fatal dispute amongst the volunteers, Glass is left for dead and must fight through unbearable circumstances to return to his outpost.
Iñárritu has the poise and confidence of a master filmmaker right from the opening scene, an exhilarating and immensely well-choreographed ambush sequence that reminded me of the similarly stunning D-Day beach raid in Saving Private Ryan. Apart from providing a thrilling action scene to kick things off, he also clues us in early to the type of visceral brutality and natural realism that he goes on to employ throughout the film’s exhausting journey. The story that he tells here is not necessarily a complex one but it’s told with an emotional purity and ruthless honesty that makes the end result as rewarding as the narrative is challenging.
Indispensable to the film’s success is veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Iñárritu previously for Birdman and received an Academy Award last year for his work. Not only is the film simply gorgeous to take in (Lubezki reportedly used only natural lighting while shooting), he tempers the overwhelming beauty of the natural landscape with an unflinching eye towards the dangers that spontaneously present themselves. Lubezki also showcases his signature style of close-up here as well, characterized by a low side angle that stays tight on the subject’s face and lends depths of intimacy that the performances may not have otherwise had.
And then we come to DiCaprio. Much has been said of his work here and even more has been said of his chances for winning his first Academy Award after having been nominated four times previously. While the notion that he has been under-appreciated by the Academy throughout his career is just, I fear that the “Overdue Oscar” talk may overshadow just how committed and tenacious a performance he gives in this film. In fact, the same could be said of Tom Hardy, who brings an unrelenting intensity to another memorable antagonistic role that serves as a career-best for him. The Revenant is bravura filmmaking from a director at the peak of his powers.