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The Revenant – Movie Review

18 January, 2016 — by Douglas Clarke-Williams0

the revenant poster

After a mild Christmas of light jackets and al fresco dinners, the eventual breaking of winter across London is accompanied by the release of what can probably be safely classified as the coldest film of the year.

The Revenant takes place across the sweeping wayward wilds of 1820s Montana, a land of bitterly icy winds and waist-high snow drifts – not to mention highly protective mother bears and hard-bitten fur trappers with significantly less maternal instinct. It is across this unforgiving landscape which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass crawls, hobbles and stumbles in pursuit of Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald, a man as unmerciful as the country itself; Fitgerald killed Glass’ son and left our protagonist for dead in a shallow grave. Also on the hunt are a posse of Pawnee Native Americans led by Duane Howard’s Elk Dog, who seeks his kidnapped daughter Powaqa (played by Melaw Nakehk’o).

The film is at its best when we are exposed to the full and bracing immensity of the country, contrasted with which are the characters, who seem as fleeting and inconsequential as the fire’s sparks, which Iñárritu frames against the unyielding depth of the night sky in one of The Revenant’s many beautifully still shots. These moments also lend the film an appealing air of mysticism that at times borders on a quasi-surreality, a tone which fittingly accompanies the dream sequences, helping to blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy.

the revanant leonardo dicaprio and tom hardy

Iñárritu also deploys here the talent for innovative and imaginative techniques which made Birdman such a love letter to the arthouse instinct. The fogging of the lens with Glass’s breath, for instance, is a nice touch which adds shades to DiCaprio’s agonised and immersive depiction of a man whose “body is rotten.”

On that note, the answer to the question of whether this is finally the performance for which DiCaprio deserves the statuette, which many think has been so unfairly withheld from him is probably yes. Large swathes of the film are without dialogue, and it’s to DiCaprio’s credit that he’s able to fill these scenes with little to play against other than a cold wind. Glass is subjected to a series of ever increasingly horrible happenings: attacked by bears, swept down churning rivers, hurled off cliffs. What prevents this litany of abuse from turning into nothing more than suffer-porn is DiCaprio’s exhaustive dedication to wearing these trials like a heavy soaked pelt. He never allows us to forget the cold, the broken bones, the blood, and this extends beyond the limping and the hands cramped with frost; we see his resolve steel itself into something harder than ice as time goes on, and that makes the slivers of breaking emotion all the more compelling.

the revanant leonardo dicaprio goes mad

It’s good that DiCaprio is able to shoulder that burden, since his fairly half-conceived backstory is the weakest part of the film and would be little able to drive home any emotional thrust on its own strengths. Glass’s son Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck, is given a couple of lines which wouldn’t look out of place Photoshopped across a picture of a forest on Instagram before being snuffed out without much ceremony. Without both him and Glass’s deceased wife (Grace Dove) the audience is left to rely on DiCaprio’s mournful reminiscence as evidence of the deep emotional bond between them. The occasional ghostly manifestations of the latter, while they contribute to our perception of Glass as a man haunted by demons as much as he hunts his own, lack the heft they might otherwise have if we had a fuller idea of the relationships which have been lost.

Although he undoubtedly carries proceedings, DiCaprio is backed by a solid supporting case. Tom Hardy, only marginally more intelligible than he was as Bane, brings a self-possessed menace to his role as the antagonist, playing off an excellent Will Poulter as greenhorn tracker Jim Bridger, whose gradual confrontation of the harsh realities of frontier life seem to age him scene by scene. Additionally, one of the quietly excellent elements of The Revenant is Elk Dog and his team of native fighters, raiding the fur trappers and doing some hard trading with the French as they scour the plains for Powaqa. Their wordless stoicism and whooping flashes of action fall on the right side of pastiche, and their grim march on this mission is carried out under the Damoclean knowledge of their inevitable extermination at the hands of these squabbling white men.

“I have no life, only living” proclaims Fitzgerald at one point, although perhaps even living is too strong a term – these men simply survive, day by day, hour by hour, through all the worst that an uncaring world can throw at them. From snowcapped peaks to raging rapids, boggy forests to windswept plains, Iñárritu brings before us a world where few of us would want to live – but for two and a half hours it’s a fine place to visit. 4/5

Check out the rest of the latest cinema releases in our new film reviews section, including other super-manly Oscar contenders The Hateful Eight and Rocky sequel Creed

Douglas Clarke-Williams

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