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Review: The Revenant – “A cinematic achievement of extraordinary proportions”

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Fresh off triumphing at the Golden Globe Awards where it was deservedly laurelled for Best Picture Drama, Best Lead Actor in a Drama Film (Leonardo Di Caprio) and Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñarritu), the relentlessly epic spectacle of The Revenant finally arrives in UK cinemas, the day after scoring the frontrunner position at the Oscars with 12 nominations. Yet, no matter the outcome at next month’s ceremony, Iñarritu’s opus is undeniably a cinematic achievement of extraordinary proportions.

Inspired by true events in the life of frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass (portrayed by Di Caprio) in 1823 Montana and South Dakota, and partly based on Michael Punke’s novel of the same name, the film’s core is a simple story of revenge and survival. However, behind the thin plot lies a deep philosophical reflection on the human condition that transcends the period setting. The result is astonishing, not just for the production values, but especially for the artistic ambition fulfilled with titanic efforts by filmmakers, cast and crew, with incommensurable and awe-inspiring dedication to their craft.

There’s nothing supernatural, sci-fi or fantasy about Glass’ adventure, despite the gorgeous film poster’s eerie display of the title’s definition (one who has returned, as if from the dead), makes you think about the brilliant French TV series Les Revenants. There’s only life’s lingering final breath that the protagonist desperately clings onto in order to (literally) raise from the ground after being left for dead, following a bear attack. Punke’s novel is already a fictional retelling of this incredible real life journey but whatever narrative license the author took to write his book, screenwriters Mark L. Smith and Iñarritu take it further with a pivotal plot point that’s essential to create a cinematically satisfying story.

In the film Hugh Glass has married a Native American woman from the Pawnee tribe who was killed during an imperialistic attack to their village, leaving him to care for their son Hawk. Glass is still haunted by his wife’s image and is very protective of his now teenage son (impressive newcomer Forrest Goodluck) who accompanies him in his expeditions. This added backstory is important not just to make the film more compelling when it comes to the protagonist’s motivation for going after the man who betrayed him but especially as it widens up the narrative’s thematic palette.

The experienced Glass guides a party of men hunting for pelts in the wild territories of the Louisiana Purchase under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) but the group is ambushed by Native American tribe Arikara who believe them responsible for abducting their Chief’s daughter. Only one third of the party survives, including John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, in yet another distinguished villainous role), a tough, unscrupulous Southerner only interested in business. Tension raises when Glass claims their only chance to avoid the Arikara is to find their way back to camp through the woods rather than continue on boat down the river. Fitzgerald reluctantly obeys Captain Henry’ orders to follow Glass’ suggestion and so they hide most of the salvaged pelts to come back and retrieve them later with a repopulated party of armed men.

Things precipitate though when Glass is almost fatally mauled by a wild bear and the group is inevitably slowed down by having to carry him along on a stretcher. With prohibitive weather conditions advancing fast, they decide to split and Captain Henry offers an inviting compensation to those who choose to stay behind with Glass, to wait for the inevitable and give him a proper dignified burial. The greedy Fitzgerald volunteers along with the brave but naïve young Bridger (Will Poulter) and so they remain with Hawk by Glass’ side.

Having witnessed the vicious hunter head-butting with Glass and insulting his “half-blood” son, it’s no surprise when Fitzgerald soon breaks his promise, leaving Glass to his doomed fate, burying him down in the dirt whilst still (more or less) alive. Without spoiling anything, Glass’ hard-to-believe quasi resurrection is rightfully motivated by the only thing that matters to him, his son. As he spells out in the film’s trailer, he’s not afraid to die because he’s already done it. Fear not though, as The Revenant isn’t some sort of ridiculous “Rambo in Frontierland” but rather a jaw-dropping morality tale about honour and trust peppered with edge-of-your-seat action and breathtaking cinematography.

Two-time Oscar winning director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, an incredible artist and long-time collaborator of filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick is at his second feature film with Iñarritu here. By the look of it he might be bringing the gold home for the third consecutive time, after winning the Oscar for Iñarritu’s Birdman last year and for Cuarón’s Gravity in 2014 and we’d be ok with that. Filming solely with natural light, Lubezki equally captures the poetry and the ruthlessness of Mother Nature, reminding us of how one attribute doesn’t necessarily exclude the other and practically making Nature itself a character with vigor and vividness and the most emotionally powerful one at that.

Iñarritu confirms his status as a first class filmmaker and storyteller. Those who might think The Revenant is some sort of National Geographic documentary with a life-or-death human fight at its center should probably watch it again with open minds, taking in all the deepest layers the film has to offer. Sure, the basic plot is a cat-and-mouse chase fueled by revenge and aimed at survival but the real heart of the story lies thematically in the valor of justice, honour and truth, the resilience of the human spirit against all odds and the possibility of peaceful integration over greed-fed, murderous colonialism. Echoing Costner’sDances With Wolves (1990) and Malick’s The New World (2005), which was also shot by Lubezki, it’s impossible to ignore The Revenant’s reflection on the horrors committed by the white man, whose consequences ripple all the way back to present day. But beyond all the violence and the abundant quasi-Tarantinesque gore on display, there’s a message of hope that stems from our ability to get in touch with our compassionate side.

The filmmakers don’t spare us the complexity of the situation instead of offering a typical black and white simplification of historical facts and figures. It’s compelling to realize how this party of hunters includes different facets of the white man in the new world. Fitzgerald is the ruthless conquistador who only cares about increasing his own wealth, Captain Henry has an imperialistic view on their presence there, claiming to bring civilization to the savages but at least he has a moral compass and is committed to uphold the law as entailed by his position. Glass is the white man who has chosen integration to the point of marrying a Native American woman and having a child with her, proving that the colour of his skin isn’t what makes him belong. He’s learned the Natives’ culture and because of that he’s now able not just to work as a guide but to survive. Lastly, Bridger is the innocent and easily manipulated young man and Poulter shows that his Hollywood break is not casual as he captures the kid’s pure heart (and Southern accent) effortlessly.

Leonardo Di Caprio does way more with this role than meets the eye. He’s brilliant at conveying the various nuances of his character’s emotional journey. His dialogue is sparse and his performance is mostly physical, although not just because of the method acting he reportedly embraced. We definitely believe him and jaw-drop as he fights a ferocious wild bear (superbly realized with little and hard-to-tell CGI) or crawls his way out of the ground and through the freezing snow, eating bison liver and taking shelter inside the carcass of a dead horse. Yet what truly stands out is the emotional impact of his inner self as Glass is haunted by dreams of his defunct wife, and his only concern is to protect his endangered son. Leo’s portrayal of Glass’ love for the boy is utterly visceral and palpable, adding yet another memorable role to his illustrious CV. Whatever happens at the Oscars next month, he’s already a legend, but come on Academy, it’s about damn time!

5-out-of-5

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