From those few moments the actors’ breath occasionally fogged the camera lens and I didn’t protest it as an error, I knew I was in for a ride.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has pushed the production to agonizing behind-the-scenes. His film boasts the feat that it was shot entirely in natural lighting, allotting for fickle shooting time in freezing conditions. The choice of shooting conditions provoked cast and crew’s ire that came true on the screen. There was a publicity of crewmembers complaining and leaving set.
This reminds me of another survivalist picture like the down-to-earth “The Martian,” except this is realism in its earthly grittiness with no snark or jokeline, even if the succession of mishaps sound like a Quentin Tarantino punchline. The cold western frontier is no pastoral benign beauty, but it’s a freezing Hell. Inexplicably enough, it’s a “based on a true story” plot, based on the real-life trapper Hugh Glass’s exploits when he was left for dead.
Although said “true story” had Hollywood fabrication here, the real Hugh Glass (who never had a murdered child to avenge) underwent what could easily believed to be a myth at first but massively verified by accounts. Much of the fictionalization, the addition of Glass having a son, was derived from Michael Punke’s fictionalized novel. The plot here was rearranged into a more bloodthristy revenge tale with an imprint of a Western-genre flair.
In this Hollywood version, Hugh Glass is a frontiersman trapper accompanied with his adolescent half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). In the film’s first harrowing scene, Glass’s trapper camp is decimated by the surprise ambush of Native Americans, who are on a search for a kidnapped chieftain daughter. The camera work utilizes rapid panning and titling wide-shots, but adeptly staged so that we can process the chaos of the slaughter.
Glass and his fellow men manage to escape to a secluded location. Glass parts from the group only to be battered by a wild grizzly bear. The mauling, filmed in merciless oners with limited cuts, leaves Glass mortally wounded. I heard the audience wince at every sickening crunch of bestial weight whenever the bear would step on Glass when it was not flinging him around like a ragdoll.
The camp leader (Domhall Gleeson) and the surviving trappers are forced to leave Glass behind due to the threat of conditions. The leader offers pay to two other trappers, the gruff Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and young Bridger (Will Poulter), to aid Glass and give him a peaceful burial when he succumbs.
Hardy plays a survivalist Fitzgerald, irredeemable amorality unlike his redeemable Max from “Fury Road.” The boy Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) juggles his moral idealism with his consciousness in the land of no mercy. Fitzgerald, sick of the burden of supervising an invalid, murders Glass’s son in front of a paralyzed Glass and fools the naive Bridger into abandoning Glass into his shallow grave. Yet, through sheer force of will, Glass rises from his grave, becoming a living fleshed-phantom dragging himself across miles to exact his revenge and scrounging raw provisions from the grit of nature–from a flopping trout to edible plants or the decaying flesh in cattle bones.
Series of one shots frame his agony in relentless close-ups and the method he drags himself across Earth to his destination. There is zero comedy in these situations, yet I take it that even the gore-aficionado Quentin Tarantino would envy the on-screen audacity. If you’re unlucky, you might be spoiled on a sequence involving a horse carcass. The director and Mark Smith’s screenplay leaves the wilderness survival pragmatics and applicably unexplained, permitting DiCaprio’s painstaking actions to speak for itself.
Leonardo DiCaprio is an A-lister who could crucify himself for the maximum believable on-screen agony and passion. While we tend to speak of facial expression to judge acting, it’s easy to forget that acting requires physical prowess, which he utilized to comedic escalation in “Wolf of Wall Street.” His facial and physical performance in “The Revenant” will provoke mass memetic punchlines of DiCaprio suffering for his art in the award seasons. He sells every painful moment hauling the momentum of the film on his back. I also dare to joke that should DiCaprio get his due, he should thank nature and “impeccable cinematography” for his acting. He’s not just acting well. There are no illusions about his Glass immersing himself in freezing waters and slugging his frame through the snow.
I’m not sure the film found a fitting compromise between its realism and its mysticism, which is effective when played low-key rather than egregiously in Glass’s dream sequences. The mysticism can add silliness due to its jarring contrast against the film’s committed realism. I feel the editor suspected the pretentious whimsy and used quicker cuts for the dream scenes, compared to the film’s prolonged oners, to get past the unneeded weirdness.
The frontier grit conquers every frame of the cinematography. This a brutal passion tale our eyes cannot unsee. It’s a dedication of craft.