Leonardo DiCaprio stars in The Revenant, an immersive and visceral cinematic experience. (Twentieth Century Fox)
Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy reportedly endured some of the harshest conditions an actor could face during the filming of The Revenant, the film that director Alejandro González Iñárritu made after last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Every moment of that sheer brutality is evident on the screen, making the film one of the most visceral experiences one could ever have in a theater. This is perhaps less a film than a test of endurance. Many audience members will fail this test, unable to withstand what Iñárritu inflicts on his characters. Those who do endure the film will exit the theater completely drained and emotionally numb, yet with a feeling of pride as if they themselves survived.
The Revenant takes place in the American frontier during the 1820s. DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a skilled trapper with a son he fathered with a Native American woman. When his fellow trappers have to flee after an attack, Glass is mauled by a bear and only narrowly survives. He, his son and two other frontiersmen (Hardy and Will Poulter of The Maze Runner) remain behind awaiting help, but Hardy’s vicious John Fitzgerald murders Glass’ son and leaves Glass for dead, not knowing that Glass has enough strength to continue his journey to find safety and enact revenge against him for killing his son.
Glass’ fight with the bear is a mere harbinger for the dangers the characters face in the wild. Rumors circulated after early screenings that the bear rapes Glass, and although false, so many terrible things happen to the character that it is easy to understand why some audience members might have assumed that inter-species sexual assault was one of them. None of this is realistic in the slightest. Glass begins by crawling throughout the wilderness to limping with a walking stick, to even surviving a leap off a cliff thanks to a conveniently-placed tree. It seems possible that a person could live after one of these injuries, but surviving all of them would require supernatural abilities that even most Marvel superheroes do not possess.
The implausibility of Glass’ survival through the film stands in sharp contrast to the ostensible realism of the rest of the production, which takes care to portray the wild territories of early America as untouched by any hint of civilization. As with Iñárritu’s last film, Emmanuel Lubezki serves as the director of photography, and this equals his Oscar-winning work on Birdman and Gravity. Only the beauty of Lubezki’s cinematography serves as a tonic against the unrelenting grimness that Glass faces.
DiCaprio is fine in The Revenant and undoubtedly puts in more work here than in any previous role. He struggles, grunts, wheezes, limps and crawls in a nearly wordless performance. His effort is impressive, even if his performance will seem secondary to some of his best work. He may have ended his day of shooting on The Wolf of Wall Street with more energy than he does here, but playing Jordan Belfort required more complexity from the actor. Hardy, in contrast, creates a fuller portrait of a reprehensible person. Like in The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy adopts a guttural snarl to highlight his character’s villainy. Hardy may not be subtle, but he is compelling. Only his character seems fully at home amidst the violence and cruelty, even though what Fitzgerald desires most is to escape it.
The Revenant is a visceral experience from its first moments to its last, an unrelenting look at the suffering humans can endure. No one will ever mistake it for a feel-good movie. Even those recent films that depict the worst human impulses such as Room maintain a glimmer of hope for humanity. Iñárritu never offers that comfort. In the world he creates in The Revenant, survival is only a temporary reprieve. There is always a bigger bear, a steeper cliff or more dangerous marauders around the corner. Audiences may not exit the theater feeling energized or hopeful, but they should be in awe of Iñárritu’s technical mastery. This is superlative filmmaking that, like the bear that mauls Glasso, grabs ahold of the audience and never lets go.
Twentieth Century Fox
In select theaters Dec. 25; wide release Jan. 8
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