The Revenant movie review

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For those of you who think the life of a famous actor is all martinis and mansions, you’d be wise to check out The Revenant to witness the special kind of hell to which its actors had to face. Reports suggest the film went over time, over budget and subjected its cast and crew to some of the most dangerous shooting conditions on record, driving many of them to quit or be fired.

This is understandable once you view the film. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is a director who’s not afraid to use grueling methods such as the super long takes in Birdman. But The Revenant makes that production look like a walk in the park. Michael Keaton and Emma Stone didn’t have to shoot in the freezing cold rivers and knee-high snow of the Canadian wilderness. Innaritu wanted to use as little CGI as possible, vying to shoot on location with natural settings. Although the methods were dangerous, the product is breathtaking.

No actor endured more punishment than Leonardo DiCaprio. If there was an award for greatest physical performance, or worst conditions endured, he’d run away with it. As Hugh Glass, he seeks revenge after being mauled by a bear in the Northern US of 1823 and left for dead by members of his hunting team. After the mauling, which is a harrowing piece of acting itself, DiCaprio spends what seems like half the movie crawling through the dirt and over ice like the living dead, sleeping in caves and inside of animal carcasses. He’s part of a brutal fight scene, submerged in frigid water for much of the film and, even though it’s only DiCaprio’s character that falls off a cliff, you’d swear the actor himself had been through the ordeal.

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Glass is an excellent hunter and guide who’s haunted by visions of his murdered wife and understandably protective of his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Even before his physical near-death experiences, he’s practically dead inside, trying desperately to cling to life. DiCaprio strips away any semblance of the men he was in recent films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Django Unchained. It’s an incredibly raw and touching portrayal of a character who communicates through grunts and barely audible sentences. It feels like little of his life escapes him with every breath he takes. We feel for this character throughout, especially after the bear attack when he develops an almost animalistic persona.

It’s this primal quality that drives his performance as well as the film itself. The movie is a ticking time bomb of rage, vengeance, greed and violence. At some points you wish the script, written by Innaritu and Mark L. Smith, wasn’t so one-dimensional and had more time to breathe and allow other emotions and character developments to seep through. The movie gives a clinic in visual storytelling and DiCaprio could handle anything the script threw at him, but it doesn’t lend itself to a complete performance. Though the film is realistic in the time it takes for Glass to recover, this makes for a large stretch where we just get grunts and groans from Glass and merely learn he’s resilient. You wait long for some gripping dialogue that’s too sparse and some kind of emotional outburst which is either too muted or non-existent.

Though you could argue it suffers from a lack of narrative complexity and philosophy, the film looks marvelous thanks to Innaritu and the master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose worked on such masterpieces as Children of Men, Gravity and, of course, Birdman. Using natural light, the film is devoid of any Hollywood artifice, replaced by images that are brutally realistic. These images, coupled with the crunching of snow under foot and the visible breath of the characters, brings you right into the action. You feel cold just watching it.

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There’re more than a few scenes that can really only be described as jaw-dropping. The slow patches of the movie are balanced with big, silencing moments that are spectacles all by themselves. One involves the ambush of the hunting party by a Native American tribe at the start of the film which causes the survivors, including Glass, to flee in disarray. Innaritu takes a chaotic situation and orients the viewer perfectly; there’s logic in the mayhem. In this scene especially, Innaritu shows off his mastery of physical space. With his long tracking shots, fluid camera movement and some unique 90 degree sideways pans, he embraces the full dimension of his landscape and represents his setting as a complete 360-degree environment. Many actual 3D movies don’t provide the same effect.

Of course, there’s the bear mauling scene. It’s the kind of scene that could make or break a movie. But with Innaritu’s staging and DiCaprio’s performance it actually exceeds expectations. Obviously, a real bear wasn’t used, but the CGI recreation is near-flawless. And then there’s poor Glass whose screaming and pleas for help are so authentic and intense you want to jump into the screen to help. It’s heartbreaking, yet so powerful and vivid.

But the real villain in this epic tale is John Fitzgerald, played by the brilliant Tom Hardy who’s been almost invisible from the marketing campaign but definitely not the movie. Fitzgerald is the man who promises to watch over Glass after his attack along with the young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass’s son. Things go bad, though, as Fitzgerald is a greedy sociopath. Hardy speaks with a thick, almost unintelligible, southern accent which accompanies his eerily nonchalant sliminess. Poulter and Goodluck hold their own amidst these master thespians, but Domhnall Gleeson seems miscast as Captain Andrew Henry, the leader of the hunting party. Though his appearance and sensibilities as an actor are perfect for roles such as Caleb Smith in Ex Machina, he just doesn’t have the authority necessary for a role as a leader of men.

By the time you reach the final confrontation in The Revenant, you may be worn out and, despite its solid execution, it may feel unsatisfying to some. The movie might be straightforward to a fault. However, though it might not have too much to say, it has plenty to show. We’re treated to some of the most extraordinary images and performances of the year, several of which will stand the test of time. Everything you see on screen is evidence of extremely talented and dedicated artists who didn’t make a perfect film, but at least gave their blood, sweat and tears to make a very good one.

Rating: 4/5 Atoms

NR 4 Atoms - B

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Glen Ilnicki
Glen Ilnicki 271 posts

Glen has been reading comic books and playing video games his whole life. His unhealthy passion, however, is for film. He currently resides in Ottawa, Canada.