Movie Review: The Revenant

From the visionary director of last year's artful exposure of what happens behind the curtains of Broadway in Birdman, and based in part on the gripping novel by Micheal Punke, The Revenant delivers not only a brutal tale of revenge and survival, but also one unforgettable experience at the theater. Visceral and unrelenting in its long journey, the film packs in a plethora of powerful performances -- from the silent revenant of Leonardo DiCaprio to the boastful gambler of Tom Hardy -- as well as some of the best camera work of the year, all to whisk you away into the cold and unforgiving terrain of the American frontier. 


Two men driven to nothing but revenge and survival, the only primal instincts they can grasp in the deadly terrain of the Midwest in the 1820s, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and John Fitzgerald (Hardy) soon enter a battlefield of more than wits and strength. One a loving father, burdened with the loss of his wife and his only son to men he thought he called allies, the other a wicked gambler, cursed to roam the American frontier in search of fortune and fame, these two men must face the unrelenting landscape in order to make peace with the mistakes they have made. When Glass is left behind after a grisly attack by a bear, abandoned by his men to rot and die, the frontiersman must use every ounce of strength and determination he has to see that justice is brought upon those who left him to die. Trekking the harsh landscape, evading deadly Indian tribes and brutal weather conditions in his path, Glass is fueled by nothing but his raw vengeance to see the gambler Fitzgerald bleed under his blade.

Having read the dynamic novel of revenge and flawed heroism by author Michael Punke -- just a month before seeing the film -- I knew what I was jumping into when I sat down to see this film. The book describing a horrifying journey of one man's vicious crawl across a deadly landscape in order to find the man who left him bleeding in the snow, I wasn't surprised when I saw a mostly faithful adaptation of the harrowing tale brought to screen. What did surprise me, however, were the many changes brought to screen that were not in the book. Ultimately making for a much more developed tale, the death of Glass' fictional son adding to his thirst for revenge, and the film cutting a few areas that may have not been needed in the near two and half-hour film, I was left immensely satisfied by this loose adaptation. Ultimately fueled by the many fables of the real-life frontiersman Glass, the film brought his story to life in a way that not many directors could do. 


Speaking of directors, the silent powerhouse that is Alejandro G. Iñárritu managed to once again deliver a unexpectedly mesmerizing film about determination and false heroism, just as he did with the profound flick of Birdman. Departing from the modernized stage of the theater, and traversing the dark landscape of 1820s South Dakota, Iñárritu proves once again that he can tell a glorious and moving story with nothing more than brilliant cinematography and a gracious amount of percussion in the score. Aided by his fellow master behind the camera, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who brought his skills to Iñárritu's Birdman, as well as 2013's Gravity), the duo once again wows the audience with their powerful shots of the brutal yet beautiful landscape. Utilizing a hectic yet serene drum score and plenty of single shots to progress the story towards its jaw-dropping conclusion, it would be a crime not to recognize Iñárritu's fantastic direction in this film. 


Even if it may not be entirely the director's job to cast his or her films, it is ultimately their job to make their film's cast work for such a film as this. In terms of this film's cast, I saw few issues, as two of my favorite film actors entered a battle of survival and vengeance to see who would be left standing in the end. Equipped with the methodical Leonardo DiCaprio, a man who picks his roles very particularly and is amazing in nearly every one, and the equally methodical Tom Hardy, an actor who has dominated the screen with his ferocious and complex acting style, The Revenant soon became less about how these actors performed, and more about how far their director pushed them to perform the way they did. With these two, as well as the rest of the memorable cast including a rugged Domhnall Gleeson and a scarred Will Poulter, the method of direction put forth by Iñárritu managed to shine even in the dreary atmosphere of the film's setting. With profoundly unsettling performances all around -- from the haunted portrait of a man once human in DiCaprio's Glass to Hardy's chuckling animal of raw arrogance and fear in his Fitzgerald, the film pushed its actors to limits I've rarely seen in any film before. What limits you may ask, well you may just have to see it for yourself.  

Just as a film's cast and script is important in bringing a film to life, so is a film's setting. Whether it be on the theater stage or on a war-torn battlefield, in outer space or in a court room, there are those few films that utilize its atmosphere in such a way as to leave a mark on the audience that sits before it. As for this film, it is a most brilliant example. With its gracious use of breathtaking views of the American fronteir, as well as its dynamic tale of one man's journey across said frontier, traversing over plots of land left scarred by plots of death and tragedy, The Revenant at times felt more concerned on the horrors of the landscape than the horrors of the people who occupy it. What ultimately became a story of sacred land, its plethora of trees endangered by a forceful wind with fear of them crumbling to the icy ground becoming a metaphor for men endangered by the forceful actions of their own conscious, the brutal landscape surrounding the film's events tells more of a story than its characters do.  


Overall, The Revenant was a visually pleasing ride with just enough of a revenge plot to keep you intrigued. While it may not be for everyone, its slow-burn thriller building up to a violent and abrupt ending worthy of Quentin Tarantino, the film manages to deliver some of the best direction and cinematography of 2015. Along with some superb acting from two Oscar-deserving men, especially the overly-devoted DiCaprio who even in silence can wow a crowd, this ambiguous yet fantastically complex revenge thriller was exactly as I pictured it to be.

I gave this film a 9 out of 10 for its savage look at one man's survival and thirst for vengeance, its unmistakably beautiful direction and cinematography from the duo of Iñárritu and Lubezki, and its gripping performances from its two leading men, who work to reveal the true difference between fearless determination and cowardly trepidation.              

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