From Amores Perros to Babel to Biutiful to Birdman, director Alejandro González Iñárritu deals in dark, sometimes cruel subject matter. His latest is no different. The Revenant recounts the tale of real-life 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman who who became sort of a folk hero after surviving a bear attack. Then he is left to die by the two the men assigned to take care of him [John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter)]. Hugh sets out to find his way back to their outpost under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). He’s mainly trying to stay alive, but he also seeks retribution. Hugh Glass has been documented in numerous books and was the subject of the feature film Man in the Wilderness (1971) starring Richard Harris. This production is based on a fictional 2002 novel by Michael Punke, inspired by real events.
Once again, Iñárritu has reunited with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The partnership is integral to the success of the picture. Set in the American Rockies in the 1820s, the shoot stretched over 9 months in the inhospitable Canadian Rockies northwest of Calgary often in subzero temperatures. However the ending was photographed in Argentina after the weather became too warm. No computer graphics or green screen technology was used to simulate the environment. These are actual people suffering barbaric conditions. The atmosphere has a physicality you cannot fake.
The Revenant has some of the most ravishing cinematography I have ever seen. Lubezki or “Chivo” shot on location using only natural light. He presents these snow covered vistas with a visual grandeur that is never less than breathtaking. With this work of art, Emmanuel Lubezki now ascends the shortlist for greatest cinematographer of all time. With his back to back wins at the Oscar, a 3rd would be unprecedented but equally well deserved. The quiet majesty present in his work here makes violent events and a harsh weather look strikingly beautiful. By all accounts, this was not an easy shoot. He, like Hugh Glass, tames the wilderness. He brings out the panoramic beauty of this unforgiving climate. I want develop stills from this movie and make a coffee table book.
However his effort would be in service of nothing if not for the human presence at the narrative’s center. Leonardo DiCaprio captivates the viewer’s attention with a physically demanding role. After one particularly memorable scene, his achievement becomes an almost wordless performance. Early talk focused around the scene where he is mauled by a bear. It is a stunning achievement that combines CGI with stunt people to create a visceral episode like no other. You will feel what it’s like to come face-to-face with an animal of that magnitude. It’s an immersive demonstration that will have you gripping your armrests in the theater. It’s that vital authenticity that makes this the emotionally compelling spectacle that it is.
The heart of The Revenant is centered around an absolute pedal to the metal performance by Leonard DiCaprio as the dirty, rugged mountain man. His survival odyssey is an emotional and physical journey conveyed without words. Hugh Glass travels some 200–300 miles often on his stomach clawing at the ground,. He forages for food, floats down rapids, jumps off a cliff and is followed by hostile Native American Arikara Indians across present day South Dakota,. At three hours, it’s pretty exhausting, but it never feels tedious. At one point, his quick thinking allows him to stay warm in a most ingenuous way that you have to see to believe. It’s creative touches like this that elevate the production into something we want to embrace. The punishing cold, the festering wounds – you will feel every brutal hand that this poor fellow is dealt. The movie is primal. The Revenant isn’t just a film, it’s an experience.