There are numerous examples of film directors throwing themselves and their films into the path of nature itself in the search for some sort of artistic perfection. Rather than taking the short way around with sets or computer graphics, they embrace the chaos and ferocity of nature, trying to capture a kind of unbridled realism that can only be captured with great difficulty and cost. Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg are just a few who somehow managed to take on the challenge and succeed, and now recent Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu can add his name to the list. After offering us a sublime cinematic spectacle with 'Birdman' last year, he continues his medium-pushing work with 'The Revenant', an unbridled and punishing piece of work filled with poetry and awe.
Based on a true story, 'The Revenant' recounts the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman in the 1820s, and his gruelling quest for survival and revenge against John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) after Fitzgerald leaves Glass for dead and takes what matters to him most following an utterly horrific bear attack. Driven by blinding retribution, he literally crawls his way across the South Dakota wilderness, fighting against his terrible wounds and the unforgiving elements around them.
'The Revenant' passed through a number of hands before landing with Iñárritu, but it's doubtful any would have attacked this material with his kind of boldness. Working once again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu and his team decided to film it entirely with natural light and in real locations, essentially submitting themselves to the natural elements of rain, wind and snow. This alone makes 'The Revenant' an immediately breathtaking visual experience; the human struggle writ small against the enormity of nature around it. In many ways, it feels like a visual companion to Terrence Malick's gorgeous film 'The New World' (2005; also shot by Lubezki), presenting nature as a vital character capable of passion and poetry.
However, as much as nature is a participant in 'The Revenant', Iñárritu is far more interested in the violence inherent in these men. As a director, he clearly pushes them to the edge of their abilities, whether it be in his now-iconic use of complex long tracking shots, or asking them to throw themselves against the hostile environments. Many like to make the joke that directors enjoy playing God, but in this case the director has no choice but to try. It's an unrelentingly brutal film, both visually and emotionally. The bear attack itself, a masterclass of action filmmaking, is so visceral and unforgiving that it borders on unwatchable, but this is matched easily by the attacks on Glass' sanity further along. The themes and ideas at the heart of the film are immense, boiling down to almost biblical simplicity. Like Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece 'Gravity', 'The Revenant' is a complex piece of filmmaking telling a surprisingly straightforward narrative - man seeks revenge against another for a crime committed against him. Iñárritu and fellow screenwriter Mark L. Smith complement the cleanliness of the narrative by balancing it with the relationship between the frontiersmen and the Native American population, presented as equally brutal and civilised as the invaders. As Malick did with 'The New World', he acknowledges their inbuilt relationship with the landscape, but with markedly more brutality. 'The Revenant' is one of those films that approaches questions of masculinity and honour in the right way, seeing them not as a power but as complex organisms.
'The Revenant' is a complex piece of filmmaking telling a surprisingly straightforward narrative.
By pushing his cast to the limit, Iñárritu leads all of them to great performances. DiCaprio is predictably brilliant, but stripped of the ability to speak (and at times, move) for large sections of the film, he relies on his immense talent as a physical performer to capture Glass' tremendous pain and blinding fury. Hardy is likewise brilliant, crafting Fitzgerald into the best kind of antagonist, both hateful and strangely pitiable. Iñárritu is one of the few directors who has been able to harness Hardy's combustible and unpredictable energy, and he uses it to his full advantage here. The supporting cast are also uniformly outstanding, with Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter particular standouts. There's also a gorgeous and heartbreaking performance from Forrest Goodluck as Glass' son Hawk, who not only has to content with the repercussions of the bear attack on his father, but the inherent racism directed at him by being the half-caste child of a white father and an American Indian mother.
At nearly two and a half hours, 'The Revenant' is the kind of cinematic journey into the heart of darkness that leaves you totally bruised and battered. It's a film you experience, one that forces you to feel every moment of pain and violence directed at its characters. Yet it's an experience that is worth every second. Alejandro González Iñárritu has delivered yet another unique and groundbreaking work of art, clearly a tremendous ordeal to create for everyone involved but just as clearly something they should all be proud of. In many ways, it's the oldest kind of cinema, one whose intention is to rip you from your seat and give you the kind of emotional and physical experience you could never have as safely in any other capacity. See it on as big a screen as you can find, and make sure you have arm rests on both sides. You'll grip them in the first few minutes, and you won't be able let them go until the last frame.