Review: The Revenant

It can be a cliché to say you’ve never seen something like ‘xx’ before, but I have to use it to describe The Revenant. It’s part-western (or ‘northern’, really), part-stunning nature documentary, and while the acting beyond DiCaprio is okay – and there are some glaring issues with dubbing and pretentious nonsense – overall it’s remarkable.

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a famous tracker in 1800s Montana and South Dakota, guiding a group of trappers alongside his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The trappers are led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) and include John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). When Glass is attacked by a bear and grievously injured, certain members of the group leave him for dead, but he survives and uses his skills to recover and find them, while surviving the wilderness.

DiCaprio gives it everything – from actually eating a raw bison liver (they’re incredibly toxic) and a live fish, through to trudging through snowdrifts, crawling out of holes and caves and generally being broken to pieces. But when you look beyond all this immersion, it’s in moments of pain, suffering, agony and silence (a lot of silence, being as he’s often alone) that he really excels. You root for Glass, and that’s because it’s a great actor you empathise with.

In contrast, Tom Hardy’s twitchy, amoral Fitzgerald is a bit stereotypical. Hardy’s never boring in a film, but from the moment go you know what Fitzgerald is and what he’ll do, and there’s not much more to him, despite Hardy’s shuffly, mumbly performance. Gleeson plays Henry as a good man with good intentions, but the role is another archetype, though Will Poulter’s sympathetic Bridger is more interesting because he’s actually a developed character, and you put yourself in his place and wondering what you’d do.

Forrest Goodluck, as Glass’ son, is also quietly impressive, selling the discomfort of being among distrusting white men, though in some emotional scenes he’s a bit screechy. In turn, the stoic Duane Howard’s Indian leader barely needs to speak to convey a sense of anger or quiet fury.revenant-leo

This movie had a controversial production, going way over budget and seeing cast and crew have issues (Tom Hardy has been seen wearing a shirt with a picture of him strangling director Alejandro Iñárritu!). Part of why this occured happens to be a major factor in why the film is so good though – only natural light in natural landscapes was used, meaning scenes had to be filmed at certain times in certain weather.

While this seems insane, the skill of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is such that you forget you’re in a cinema, and are drawn into the beautiful, stark and cold landscapes, with some scenes like high-def Attenborough documentaries. Sometimes this comes across as really pretentious, but when Glass is trying to survive or escape his latest obstacle, the views enhance your involvement. At a time when many films are dependent on being filmed in a studio, or using special effects, The Revenant stands out.

Iñárritu’s direction also makes me excited to watch his future films. Long, single-camera shots build tension, one early scene benefiting by building fear and horror. The singular vision required to make this work may have been arty to the extreme, and caused problems, but the way scenes are shot, taking in the power of nature and Glass’ struggle to survive, really work.

There are issues though. For some godforsaken reason, nearly every line of dialogue spoken in a Native American language is weirdly dubbed, so actors’ mouths don’t match what they say. I found this distracting because Iñárritu likes to focus on faces – how can a film this expensive make such a mistake? And there are some ridiculously pretentious scenes (largely featuring Glass’ deceased wife) that were almost laughable.

The vistas and the plot speak for themselves, while DiCaprio is as good an actor as you could possibly get. So why alienate audiences with scenes likening people to tree stumps in detail, or the dead inexplicably appearing floating above the living and nattering on about survival? It was off-putting and a real distraction. The music, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner, is excellent however. Taut drums soundtrack dramatic scenes, while strong strings come in as we’re treated to an incredible sight. It’s very rare that a soundtrack is completely in sync with a film, but I thought this was.

Concluding this review is just as hard as starting it – The Revenant is so good in so many ways, and so annoying in others. But all-in-all it’s something quite unique that I certainly wasn’t expecting, and it really won’t be what a lot of people expect, so take this review as assistance rather than a recommendation. It should probably also be mentioned that this is not a film for the squeamish – Glass’ injuries are graphic, as are some other scenes, so be warned.

You might find you want to walk out after 20 minutes, or you might find you’re gripped – I feel that if you’re interested in this at all though, you should definitely see it. And see it in the cinema, as this is one movie that has to be seen on the bigger screen.

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