The Revenant review: Beautiful but grisly exercise in suffering
‘The Revenant’ is short on dialogue and thin on characterisation; however the misery is well worth enduring
Film Title: The Revenant
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard, Arthur Redcloud, Melaw Nakehk'o
Running Time: 157 min
In a recent interview, Tom Hardy, who is almost as unkind as nature in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s gut-punch of a frontier epic, claimed that the director originally planned to repeat the convolutions of Birdman and shoot the film in simulation of a single take. That sounds too exhausting for words.
The finished work does still feel a little like a formal experiment. Short on dialogue, thin on characterisation, The Revenant looks to be testing just how much chilly, viscera- soaked misery the audience can handle. It would be unfair to call the film “one-note”. Let’s settle for “one-chord” and acknowledge that it’s a chord well worth enduring. Hugh Glass’s Very Bad Day will certainly stay with you.
Played by Leonardo DiCaprio with full beard and unrelenting grimace, Mr Glass – who existed in real life – is the most skilled navigator among a posse of trappers in the snowy 19th-century frontier (the points of similarity between this propulsive entertainment and the talky The Hateful Eight are all superficial).
Hardy is gruff as the ruthless and untrustworthy John Fitzgerald. The consistently excellent Will Poulter is the inexperienced Jim Bridger. Domhnall Gleeson does what he does best as the principled Capt Andrew Henry.
The film begins as it means to go on with a brilliantly staged attack by Native Americans. Working with peerless cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu takes a chillingly matter-of-fact approach to the mayhem. Awful things happen in the corner of the frame as the camera swoops across a maelstrom of hellish slaughter. Later, Glass is mauled by a bear – another bravura episode – and left for dead by the ghastly Fitzgerald. He then begins the long, brutal tramp towards revenge. He eats the raw innards of a buffalo. He climbs inside a dead horse. DiCaprio remains bravely stoic throughout.
Some have seen echoes of Terrence Malick in Lubezki’s pans across yawning snowscapes, but Iñárritu is not so at home to mystical ballyhoo here. We are more likely to ponder the many natural phenomena that can kill a man than consider routes to pantheistic transcendence. The knowledge that the actors are being put through the mill – the frozen breath is real; clothes are soaked in actual glacial streams – adds a flavour of Herzog to the continuing misery.
A terrific electronic score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto chills the atmosphere further still.
One might reasonably wonder whether the audience doesn’t deserve more personal interaction. Glass is silent for large stretches of the film and, when he does speak, he often uses Native American tongues. The supporting cast are all excellent, but each actor is playing a type rather than a fleshed-out character.
Such quibbles underestimate the relentless purity of the director’s approach. The Revenant is an exercise in recreational suffering and, on its own mad terms, it succeeds brilliantly. Bring a muffler.