In Iñárritu’s sixth full length outing (his fourth English language movie) he makes a change in direction, although much of his interest in the human spirit and particularly the afterlife, fuelled presumably by his Catholic upbringing in Mexico, remains in place.
He describes The Revenant as a ‘Grizzly thriller” and that’s a fair summation, although the pace is often really quite slow.
What Iñárritu excels at is creating a mood of intimacy and foreboding that characterises this epic journey from start to finish. In one sense it’s an unashamed star vehicle for Leonardo Di Caprio who must surely sway the Academy judges to finally reward him with his long sought best actor statue, for this is a truly remarkable and physical performance from an actor that has deserved the formal acknowledgement of his peers for several years.
The photography, unaided by anything other than nature itself, is both oppressive (often downright gloomy in the Albertan and British Columbian winter) and intense. More than once Di Caprio’s breath unapologetically fogs the lens, so close is the filming. But it can also be beautiful in its naturalistic capture of the rivers, and particularly the forests, of its locations.
The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto quite often dominates scenes with its full orchestral chords booming across the barren and forlorn landscapes that are doing their best to destroy Di Caprio’s character, Hugh Glass.
It’s a tale of revenge, but more importantly of determination and faith ( in both the human spirit and in God). Iñárritu draws on religious iconography, as he often does, to represent the afterlife because, through much of the movie, death is either a sudden outcome for many of the cast or is imminent for Glass.
Recurring themes are the angelic dream-state vision of his dead Native Indian wife floating in mid air and an image of a foreboding hill of skulls (representing Golgotha, AKA Calvary). These dream states sit alongside a number of set pieces (the Grizzly fight in particular) in which special effects are put to quite remarkable effect, but these are short episodes in what is essentially a tortuous journey from near death.
The story goes like this.
A gang of 44 fur hunters/traders are attacked by a posse of Native Indians seeking the daughter of the chief who has been taken by another group of traders.
These guys are in no mood for taking prisoners and lay waste to the fur traders’ settlement. We then follow a small band of trapper brothers who escape (including Hugh Glass) but it quickly becomes apparent that they are no harmonious group and one in particular, Fitzgerald, played woefully in my opinion by Tom Hardy (really, his backwoodsman dialect is unintelligible and this ruins nearly all of the narrative scenes in the film), has money and self interest at heart. When Glass is attacked and nearly killed by a Grizzly Bear Fitzgerald is left to look after him, for a bounty, while the remaining group head back to the traders’ fortified settlement on the other side of the Rockies.
Rather than looking after Glass, Fitzgerald abandons him, killing his half-cast son and sets off to reclaim his bounty. What follows is a long and tortuous adventure as Glass seeks refuge back at camp. It’s a Bear Grylls expedition of monumental proportions with plenty of adventure, much misery and very little in the way of food.
This isn’t Iñárritu’s best movie (despite all the awards). There are serious flaws in the believability of Glass’ survival techniques and Tom Hardy knocks a full point off my rating for his irritating and wilfully obscure, frankly preposterous, dialect.
But put that to one side and you have an adventure epic that bears little comparison. It hangs onto Iñárritu’s arthouse sensitivities and it serves up a number of fantastic scenes that will stick long in the viewer’s mind.
I give it a 7/10. Sorry Tom. You blew it.