Hey Hollywood, meet the new golden standard for survival flicks. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant reshapes the expectations, entertainment and the overall brutality level of survival films. Leonardo DiCaprio finds yet another first class director that gives him a project to sink his cinematic chops into. This is a different kind of performance and one that anchors, elevates and sustains the film and its extended running time.
This isn’t just acting. This is full immersion into a role and a world that was known for its dead or alive status. Give DiCaprio a golden glove for the bear mauling scene that sets the film’s plot in motion and an Oscar for the go for broke all in performance he gives. You won’t see anything like this this year. DiCaprio barely speaks any English, grows a massive beard and allows the ugly to come out of his character, Fur trader turned death defying beast Justin Glass.
Glass is a good man haunted by the memory of his dead wife, who was killed in a raid. His son, half Indian, is all he has left in this world. The only thing for him to cling to while he makes a living hunting and killing bison and stripping their fur for cash. When a bear attacks him viciously and he is close to death, his crew abandons him, leaving him behind. They do so behind the propaganda jargon of the evil Fitzgerald(another dozy of a role for the fearless Tom Hardy). Left with nothing, Glass literally crawls across the earth, healing and gathering strength for the ultimate revenge mission.
Hardy is something else here. Fitzgerald isn’t just a bad man. He’s a twisted soul who is good at his job but not at much else, including compassion and respect for his fellow man. His fight with Glass during the film isn’t as fierce as the one raging in himself. Hardy doesn’t spare the audience one moment of pause, exposing himself to be something he has never played before. A true villain with purpose. Fitzgerald isn’t bad. He’s bent the wrong way.
Inarritu hangs the film, though, on DiCaprio’s shoulders. While the story springs away to follow Hardy’s Fitzgerald, there are extra long stretches of Glass withering, hobbling and doing anything to stay alive. Whether it’s crawling inside a dead horse for warmth, pigging out on raw Bison guts for dinner, or befriending an Indian(formerly his enemy) in order to stay breathing. While it’s slow moving, The Revenant is captivating in every moment. For a two hour and 36 minute movie, no scene or shot is wasted.
This film kicks your butt. It’s brutal, bare and asks all the powerful questions heavyweight dramas do this time of year. What are you in this world at your lowest level of function? When does the beast take over? Are their good and bad men, or just people with a certain philosophy that compels others to follow them? Also, when approached by a bear do not try to fight back unless you have a knife. A big knife.
That is the scene that will have everybody talking. The scene between a large brown bear and Glass that sets the tone for the rest of the film. You will leave yourself asking if that was a real bear or not, or half CGI or full CGI because it’s so horrifying and realistically done. DiCaprio is thrust into trees, stomped on, pierced by the bear’s claws and generally kicked around like a doll. If it wasn’t an actor, it was one heck of a beast inside that costume. Right when you think it’s over, the fight continues. It’s like a 12 round boxing match inside a movie and the actor’s commitment makes you buy all the way in.
That is how it works with the film. DiCaprio’s 100 % full throttle commitment to the story hold your attachment for the running time. A lesser actor would have been overpowered by it. Other capable actors may have done too much with it. DiCaprio does just enough to break your heart watching this emotionally and physically wounded soul find a way to live again.
When it does come time for the final battle between Fitzgerald and Glass, the actors and Inarritu don’t disappoint. An extended battle that starts in one snowy patch of land and escalates down a hill next to a river is wonderfully shot and intense. Fight scenes don’t get this messy and realistic in 95 percent of mainstream films. You may be rooting for Glass but you’ll understand why Fitzgerald is so mad. Nothing is spared and the end is sublimely optimistic yet bittersweet as well.
The Academy can go ahead and hand the cinematography award to Inarritu’s go to guy, Emmanuel Lubezki. They did Birdman together and elevate the craft even higher here, redefining beauty. There isn’t an endless tracking shot like the one in Birdman, but The Revenant presents many moments of sustained beauty and reward for the eyes. A getaway scene in particular involving DiCaprio on a horse trying to put distance between himself and about 30 other horses is taunt and aggressive enough to make you gasp when it suddenly ends. Lubezki knows exactly how to frame a shot and hold onto it, making it more realistic. He has worked on Oscar films before, such as Gravity, Children of Men, Tree of Life and the aforementioned Birdman. Combined with DiCaprio’s acting and Alejandro’s directing, the cinematography will make you feel cold even if you watch this film at a drive in movie theater in Florida.
If you think you have seen something like The Revenant, you are very wrong. It’s part Last of The Mohicans, part Castaway and a slice of Braveheart. It’s not just a great movie. It’s an experience.