ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU’S “The Revenant” is a brilliantly filmed, cinematically rich, totally exhausting affair. It’s the story of one man’s incredible will to survive… driven by a fierce desire for revenge. Hugh Glass (Leo DiCaprio) is a guide to a group of wild-eyed, lawless, quasi-savage trappers journeying home with their bounty of hides. They’re out there somewhere in the uncharted wastes of a wet, wintry, muddy land. You can feel the cold seeping into their bones, into their iced up beards and snow-cracked overcoats. The miseries of this murderous weather is nothing compared with a tribe of Arikara Indians in search of the chief’s captured daughter: Powaqa. And when they attack, the ensuing battle (never has a flight of arrows felt more inescapably lethal) is a brutal, savage affair, with the trappers more concerned with protecting their stolen hides than their own hides, even as they are cut down and scalped.
By the end of the first fifteen minutes, Iñárritu (The Mexican director who also gave us the magnificent “Birdman” and “Babel”) has made his point unambiguously clear: we’re at a place where the restraints and trappings of civilization have disappeared. Here the moral code has been reduced to its most basic: kill or be killed. The niceties of our human nature have been replaced by instinctual behavior; and Glass is the unconquerable spirit – the guide – to lead us through this wilderness of savagery… to some form of savage grace (“Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine”, he says finally when revenge is his to have)
The trappers, lead by Glass, manage to evade the relentlessness of the Indians. But they still must evade the bone crushing cold, their own in fighting and the beasts that roam the countryside; this is nature red in tooth and claw. And it is Glass who is caught out by a mother bear bent on protecting her cubs (not unlike the Indians bent on recapturing their squaw). The attack by the bear on Glass is cringe-worthily nasty. She grabs and bites and brutalizes Glass, him stabbing and stabbing and stabbing her, as she flings him here and there, the spittle and blood dripping from both their mouths, necks and wounded bodies.
There’s a brutish purity to this fight. He is defending himself; the bear is defending her family. It is when he’s ‘killed’ and then half buried by the brutish amoral John Fitzgerald (a wonderfully nasty Tom Hardy…who’d be a great Bond), trusted – and paid- to protect and care for him while the rest of the troop seek out shelter and help, that this ‘purity’ disappears. If Glass, like the Indians, are of the land (in one scene Glass enters into a disemboweled horse to warm himself and is reborn symbolically one with the elements) Fitzgerald epitomizes the man-made greed and avariciousness that is the real threat to the order of things.
It’s the likes of Fitzgerald, and the rampaging, conquering cavalry whose aftermath we glimpse in the images of raids and raped, slaughtered Indians, that, much more so than nature, are the real threat to this world we’ve entered. Here is the so-called world of civilization, the world of the White man as he savages whatever he meets, once there’s a profit to be had.
This is DiCaprio’s year for an Oscar. They’ve always favoured their actors to deform themselves (as Charlize Theron did for “North Country” or as Eddie Redmayne does as a woman in “The Danish Girl”). And here DiCaprio suffers and suffers. The movie’s PR blitz has made his real life suffering, as he filmed the move, quite clear. This isn’t so much a case of great acting (for that you’ll have to see – the un-nominated- Tom Courtnay from “45 Years” or Michael Shannon from “99 Homes”) as great, barnstorming, exuberant, no-holds-barred suffering. Oscar guaranteed.
As for Best Picture, “The Revenant” is up there with the rest of them. Along with his skilled cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s a wonderfully well-realized cinematic experience, a sort of film-maker’s film (as was “Mad Max: Fury Road” or last year, “Gravity”). But it’s a picture of broad stokes, with an emotional arc that starts in misery and ends in a little less misery. DiCaprio’s character suffers a little, then a whole lot, then a bit less. Don’t look for the thoughtful probing you’ll find in “Bridge of Spies” or “Brooklyn” (which should, incidentally be the hands down winner). Yes, you can certainly find references to the present (capitalism sucks; we are screwing nature; the White men are racist), but don’t expect an artist’s nuanced perspective on it.
But my Oscar journey is yet in its infancy. Here in London, these movies are dribbled out. “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” aren’t starting until next week.
By then I may have revised my opinion about “Brooklyn”. Stay tuned
The Revenant. Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu. With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter (“We’re the Millers”). Screenplay: Mark Smith and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki (“Birdman”, “Gravity”). Production designer: Jack Fist (“Water for Elephants”)