It did not take long at all for 2016 to deliver its first unforgettable film. “The Revenant” follows the true-life story of explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is mauled by a bear during a fur trapping expedition, left for dead by his fellow trappers and subsequently crawls 100 miles back to the nearest American outpost. In translating the story to film, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu takes some hefty liberties with the original events, such as adding in a murdered son to drive the story of revenge. While normally making such a change would seem to cheapen the original story, the bottom line is that the true story of Glass’ return to civilization is essentially one of a man who simply wants his stuff back. As harrowing and miraculous as Glass’ genuine tale is, it leaves precious little for a viewer to get behind. So the addition of a wrongly killed loved one might be the film’s biggest fib, but the underlying gist of the true story remains the same: man nearly killed by bear, left for dead, steadfastly refuses to die.
“The Revenant” is a visceral film. The nearly nine-month shooting schedule was brutal on both cast and crew, and the snowy mountains and forests that serve as backdrop are stark and unforgiving. All of this translates directly through the lens to the viewer, and the film is mentally and emotionally exhausting to watch. DiCaprio’s Glass is a silent protagonist through large stretches of the film, relying instead on sheer physicality to carry the role, and with stunning effect. In support, Tom Hardy and Will Poulter, as fellow real-life explorers John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, are DiCaprio’s polar opposites. Where Glass remains silent, Hardy’s Fitzgerald is verbose and indignant, himself feeling wronged by nearly everyone at every turn. Where Glass remains stoic, Poulter, as the 19-year-old Bridger, is a ball of tense, overflowing emotion.
All of the performances are noteworthy, with the interplay between Hardy and DiCaprio being the driving force behind the story. But what really makes “The Revenant” work as magnificently as it does is the work behind the camera. Inarritu made the decision to shoot the film almost entirely in-lens, with practical effects, no non-bear Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and all natural-lighting. It was the latter decision that brought about the long, grueling shooting schedule, as the harsh environments and winter daylight hours gave the crew sometimes as little as 90 minutes of shooting light a day.
All of the long months and difficult work has paid off, though. “The Revenant” is one of the most visually striking films you will see on the big screen, calling to mind the sweeping scope of films like “Dances With Wolves” but played with much more emotional intensity.
And make no mistake, “The Revenant” is an oppressively intense film. The two major conflict scenes — one at the beginning, and one at the end — are visually brutal and intensely uncomfortable viewing. DiCaprio thew himself completely into the role of Glass, and the physical demands of the film and the environments come right through the lens and wash over the viewer in a way that few films are capable of.
The world of “The Revenant” is not a happy or comfortable one. Even the ending, which could arguably be described as the most upbeat portion of the film, does nothing to ease up on the film’s relentless impact. Long but never tedious, slow but never boring, “The Revenant” is poised to be remembered as the first genuinely vital film of 2016. CV