At a time when films appear to increasingly rely on CGI and meaningless dialogue to mask otherwise shallow plots, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is an experimental masterpiece proving that you don’t need either to captivate an audience. It is a very real and brutal depiction of a classic revenge plot, executed in a way where many directors would have lacked the creative ability to commit to—even when it caused rows, schedule push backs and massively over-anticipated costs.
Based on the true story of mountain man Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), we follow him on his quest to seek vengeance after being left for dead in the cold, unforgiving—yet seemingly serene and beautiful North American landscape. It must be emphasised as to just how important Iñárritu’s distinctive style of cinematography is to the telling of Glass’s story. The chronologically-shot, one-take, panning effect resurrected from Iñárritu’s previous success in Birdman almost takes you from your position as audience member to a participant in the unfolding events onscreen. The best example of this, is in the film’s opening sequence, where during a high-intensity battle, the camera travels from character to character, adding a layer of empathy—whilst still having the overall gripping action happening at the same time.
As well as this, the stark contrast between the brutal savagery in the various tense fight scenes, amidst the backdrop of such a tranquil, snowy horizon makes for a simply stunning juxtaposition. Such scenes were filmed during just a short two-hour window each day, in natural light so that the audience could have a truly sensory experience of cinematic involvement. Iñárritu’s diligence (despite the frustration this caused the shivering crew and cast) paid off—the arduous nature of the filming is clear and spectacular.
It is testament to both the meticulous direction and high-calibre acting for a film with such strikingly minimal dialogue to succeed at generating such a profound cinematic effect. DiCaprio, though the protagonist, has the least of dialogue in the whole film. Yet through a focus on heavy breathing, desperate grunts and controlled body language, we feel every sense of his frustration, sadness, anger and determination. Describing the role as his “most challenging yet,” the Oscar nominee went to extreme lengths of method acting to convey the true depth of Glass’s test of endurance—he learnt how to speak various Native American languages; how to shoot a gun; build a fire; and succumbed to eating real raw bison liver in the name of acting—despite having an artificial one made by the crew.
Arguably more central to the story of revenge is complex character, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)—the man who leaves Glass for dead. His role seems to almost give the film’s plot a biblical element, and it would not be fair to discuss the triumph of this film without noting Hardy’s persistent faculty to often portray tormented characters with real depth. Combined, the twosome create truly tense fight scenes and a genuine ability for the audience to want Glass to survive, find him and get his revenge.
It would be impossible to discuss The Revenant without referencing to its critical acclaim—it won three Golden Globes last week, and is impressively nominated for 12 Oscars. Iñárritu’s unique style has been a hit with the critics and box office alike, and rightly so. But perhaps more importantly, this film stands the best chance of giving Leonardo DiCaprio the Best Actor accolade that many—including myself—feel the five-time nominee has long deserved. Having been pipped to the post in 2014 for his career-defining role in The Wolf of Wall Street by Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, there is buzz around tinseltown suggesting that this will finally be his year. And as previous winners have shown where high acting standard is a given, success may lie in the personal challenges that the actor is willing to overcome. McConaughey lost an impressive 38 pounds to fulfil his triumphant role, so if DiCaprio cannot sway the Academy Awards of his worthiness by eating raw fish and bison liver, who knows what will.
Overall, The Revenant is an arthouse and meticulously crafted sensory experience that highlights the complexity of human spirit and determination, whilst also proving there is still scope for filmmaking that is both real and non-pandering to the generic prosaic structures prevalent today.
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