Fresh off of Birdman, The Academy and yours truly’s favorite film of 2014, Director Alejandro G. Inarritu returns alive and in full form for The Revenant. One, perhaps less cinema-savvy moviegoer, however, might refer to it as “The new DiCaprio one,” but for all intents and purposes—despite Leo’s animalistic performance being silently front and centre—the actor’s most Oscar-worthy performance yet feels moderate against the culmination of the surrounding talent; From Inarritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith’s dissection of your typical revenge script, to Tom Hardy’s barbaric showing, to the director’s immersive long takes, to Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking shots of sky-scraping trees and mammoth mountains and all the life in between under the inherent pure, and painstaking, beauty of natural sunlight. This isn’t to diminish Leo’s crucial performance, rather to illustrate that the 11 other Oscar nominations the film received are just as rightly deserved.
It’s the 1820s, and Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) alongside his Native son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), guides a band of frontiersmen on a fur trading expedition where the deadly, presumably western Canadian, environment is just a much a threat as the pursuing Pawnee tribe. However after an attack leaves Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) with a mere 12 men, Hawk’s presence within the camp begins to boil tensions, most notability so in John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and vocal disagreement with Hugh’s decision to leave the boat and try their luck on land. Naturally, things only get worse once an angry mother, of the grizzly bear variety, leaves Hugh on the brink of death and a physical burden for the rest of the men. Hawk volunteers to stay behind until help arrives, and is voluntarily joined by a young man named Bridger (Will Poulter) and, curiously, John Fitzgerald. A few days pass with no explicit improvement to Hugh’s condition, as John grows all the more restless—so much so he nearly kills Hugh while attempting to trick him to give himself permission to kill the dying man. Coming to his father’s defense, Hawk is killed instead, and his body hidden from Bridger; Right in front of his frothing father. The next morning John wakes the boy early and warns him of an approaching tribal party, and that there’s no time to bring Hugh along with them. The boy frantically, and reluctantly, agrees, leaving John to bury Hugh alive. But, as we soon learn well enough, Hugh Glass is anything but fragile—crawling out of his grave for one sole reason, one he etches into rocks and carves into snow: “John Fitzgerald killed my son.”
Henceforth, one would expect a dominant revenge tone—except where The Revenant begins to really excel is in the ensuing conflict with nature. It becomes more of a vicious cycle the longer you think about Hugh’s motivation to live; that he’ll crawl through snow and dirt, wade through an icy current, scape bone marrow and eat a fish raw in order to avenge his son. More saddening yet, we know that in this incredibly grounded and visceral world that nothing will bring Hawk back, but never does Hugh consider this—his thirst for revenge is too closely intertwined with his thirst to survive that making things right won’t necessarily make things better.
But in a time where cinema’s most popular villainy comes evil geniuses or humanity-hating aliens, how does one make Mother Nature just as frightening? Through filmmaking. Lubezki’s brilliant wintery lush frames are provided equal if not more screen time than its two A-list stars, emitting an omnipresence of unwavering beauty and brutality, even when its not sending Hugh off a cliff on horseback, down a frigid waterfall, or appearing as a mere speck amidst a gigantic mountain range—all of which truly rewinding the clock and putting humans at the will of nature once again.
More so, Inarritu took a step forward in applying his established extended takes, limiting distracting cuts and resting deftly on shots of the uninhabited, undisturbed, and seemingly unthreatening landscape. Still, for the most part, none of these calm frames feel random or forced. Their frequency may have propelled the 2 and a half hour runtime into a territory too redundant, yet it would still be so difficult to decide which gallery-worthy shots to cut. Sound plays another major, perhaps under appreciated, role in this immersion, as dialogue is chiseled to necessity while the modestly used score features lengthy pauses to incorporate the crunching of snow, moaning of trees, chirping of birds, and howling of wind as individual and pivotal instruments.
Still, for as much as the environment is in the spotlight, DiCaprio and Hardy are undoubtedly the two consistent driving forces. Rendering John with an inherent craze, Hardy employs the same commutative eyes from The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max: Fury Road, except behind a barbaric wad of facial hair, almost biker gang-esque—making his less morally inclined reflection of Hugh into a dangerously unpredictable survivalist. Not to be outdone, DiCaprio has reportedly called this role the most taxing of his career. Upon research it’s easy to see why: not only did the vegetarian actor consume a hunk of raw bison’s liver, but he also had to learn to properly shoot a musket, build a fire, speak both Pawnee and Arikara languages, and study ancient healing methods. But you don’t need to hop on Google to fully appreciate DiCaprio’s commitment, just witnessing the actor crawl through the snow and dirt, devour a raw fish—in a enormous fur coat, scraping bone marrow from an already-devoured corpse, the actor is evidently immersed in this animalistic transformation. And, interestingly enough, DiCaprio, speaking maybe 20 or so lines in the entire film, likely made the conscious decision to opt for a more physically demanding role when turning down the lead for Steve Jobs and Sorkin’s witty dialogue. After all, since The Academy didn’t award his vulgar wolf the year prior it only makes sense that now he actually has to become one.