“The Revenant” Movie Review

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     Few film experiences will test your endurance of raw tension and excruciatingly powerful emotion as director Alejandro Inarritu’s “The Revenant”, a retelling of frontiersman Hugh Glass’ journey of some 200 miles through icy and treacherous terrain after being left for dead by fellow fur trappers in 1820s early America.  The title, whose meaning refers to one who returns from the dead, describes Glass, who falls victim to a brutal grizzly bear attack, suffering seemingly irreparable injuries as his group attempts to find their way home after losing most of their men and pelts when a fierce tribe of Indians attack.  After winning Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for last year’s “Birdman”, Inarritu steps up his game considerably from the warm and sometimes claustrophobic confines of the theater stage and goes all out with a tour de force depiction of the wilderness and the dangers people faced in order to survive.  The result is a sprawling epic film set amongst an endless amount of snow covered mountains, trees, valleys, and rivers that prove to be incredibly difficult to navigate, much less avoid the threats coming from the elements, the weather, the aforementioned grizzly bears, and man himself.

     Using the theme of revenge, Inarritu, working from a screenplay he and Mark L. Smith adapted from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge”, brings the proceedings to the most primal and savage tone likely ever captured on film.  The characters are in a constant state of peril and uncertainty, as if at any moment they could be mauled by a bear, fall of a cliff, succumb to the freezing cold, or take an arrow right between the eyes.  All of which is captured on film with such vivid realism and powerful imagery.  The film also features Leonardo DiCaprio in what is not only his best and most challenging performance to date, it may also be the best performance of 2015, mirroring the solidarity of Matt Damon’s performance in “The Martian”, but devoid of any humor or lightheartedness.  For most of the picture, DiCaprio must stretch the limits of his physical prowess with only muddled phrases of strained dialogue, heavy breathing, and grunting to aid him in portraying a convincing character.  And that’s why his performance here is so astonishing.  DiCaprio skillfully exudes the desperation of a man trapped in a desperate situation by way of his intense use of facial expression which effectively communicates his never ending will to survive.

     “The Revenant” doesn’t necessarily excel by employing complex plotting or an advanced narrative.  Instead, the story remains simple in nature, utilizing a good old fashioned revenge trope that will remind you of the focus and unstoppable determination seen in The Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films.  Hugh Glass is part of an expedition whose mission is to kill bears for their valuable fur and somehow avoid the Indians who occupy the same land, said to be in the present day areas which are now between Montana and Nebraska.  The opening sequence is a master’s class in camera work and cinematography as Inarritu and “Birdman” and “Gravity” Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki utilize a series of sharp pans and tilts, combined with well timed Steadicam shots which are seamlessly meshed action and CGI in a way that effectively demonstrates the blink of an eye danger of the situation.  Glass and his men are outnumbered and sustain mass casualties from the Indian attack, but are able to somehow escape by boat with some of the pelts they had collected and make their way down the Missouri River with the Indians still in pursuit.

     It’s here we meet the central players.  Chiefly among them is John Fitzgerald, a grizzled mountain man of a fur trapper played by Tom Hardy, who immediately reminded me of Tom Berenger’s Sgt. Barnes in “Platoon” with his southern drawl and overt nastiness.  Fitzgerald is the guy who isn’t in charge, but obviously believes he should be, making him the most vocal and least calm of the group.  He doesn’t believe Glass has the experience to help the group find their way home and he doesn’t agree with the decisions being made by the group’s leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).  The situation is treacherous enough for these men and their long odds of survival, but things get worse quickly.  Glass is suddenly attacked by a bear and suffers significant injury as the animal brutally claws open gaping wounds in his neck and back.  Carrying Glass on a handmade stretcher proves too cumbersome, leading Henry to offer to pay three men extra to stay with him until the main unit can come back with horses.  Fitzgerald volunteers, along with Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goddluck), as the rest move on in an attempt to make it the rest of the way.  What ensues between the four men proves to be the pivotal moments of the film.

     For Inarritu, “The Revenant” is a remarkable achievement.  The director has quickly established himself not only as a filmmaker capable of handling the reigns on such an immense production, but also has developed a signature style while doing so.  Every shot is composed with an artistic and stunning view of the landscape surrounding the characters and the considerable obstacles they are forced to overcome in order to survive.  More so than in most films, there is a substantial and crucial contribution from the production design team, led by Jack Fisk (“There Will Be Blood”), as well as costume designer Jacqueline West (“Argo”), and the make up department, whose dirt, grit, and blood brings unmistakable strain to the actor’s faces.  But most of all, this is a confrontation between two fine actors at the top of their game, bringing to life all of the pain and desperation associated with surviving in the most brutal of circumstances.  DiCaprio may very well go on to win an Oscar for his role after being overlooked in so many great performances during his still young career.  And while it will be tough for Inarritu to repeat his awards success from last year, “The Revenant” will stand as the director’s high point when considering the enormous undertaking the project proved to be. In fact, the experience Inarritu endured is not unlike the difficulties legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola once had when making “Apocalypse Now”.  Which means a documentary detailing the making of “The Revenant” may be just as engrossing as the film itself.  GRADE: A