A master class in visual and performance storytelling; auteur director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s bleak revenge drama in the frozen North American wilderness is undoubtedly the film achievement of the year so far. With Gladiator style revenge themes, Terence Malick-esque cinematography, and frontier drama reminiscent of Apocalypto or Dances with Wolves- The Revenant finds itself in good company.
The only question is, will you actually enjoy it?
From the off we are thrown into a harsh yet stunningly beautiful landscape, and a fierce, brutal attack from native Americans on a party of early 19th Century fur trappers. These include Leonardo DiCaprio’s troubled Hugh Glass and Tom Hardy’s mercurial John Fitzgerald. This sets the tone for much of what’s to come; but while the much talked about ‘bear attack’ that follows is well known by now, nothing can prepare you for it. It’s visceral, unflinching and horrifyingly realistic, and will leave you wondering how the hell they achieved it. What happens after this sets Glass on a bloody trail of retribution; but will the natives, or the elements, kill him before he gets it?
There’s no denying the film's strengths; a gruelling location shoot across the Americas from Canada to Argentina; a commitment to only using natural light; and a cast and crew on the edge of hypothermia; has yielded some of the finest camera work ever seen, and brought out some astonishing performances especially from DiCaprio (who despite a role calling for minimal dialogue) makes you feel every frostbitten wound and every tortured breath. Domhall Gleeson and Tom Hardy also excel (as always) but one of the surprises might be Will Poulter, who provides a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of conscience; and whose performance far exceeds what you might expect from his Maze Runner credentials.
Inarritu takes his sweet time to tell the story and allows his film to breath, and for us to soak up every bit of the vast, unforgiving and awesome landscape. It’s indulgent, but deservedly so. This is simultaneously a strength and a weakness; as while it drives home the epic vastness of the adventure and the deep personal reflection of the characters, it also denies the film the kind of pacing needed to make it a roller coaster style revenge ride; it feels longer even than its two-and-a-half hour runtime . For many that will be fine; for some it might be trying.
That said, an awful lot happens in the movie and the trials and misfortunes that befall Glass on his journey make Matt Damon’s experiences in The Martian look like a Sunday picnic in comparison.
The film’s conclusion may not be the last word in unpredictability, but it does end on a satisfying note that restores the world to some kind of equilibrium-which might have been the ultimate point.