Review: Bleak, Beautiful and Bloody — The Revenant is Epic

By January 11, 2016Reviews

About halfway into The Revenant, Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald, a cold and traumatized frontiersman, shares meat with Will Poulter’s Jim, a young man he lied to in order to leave Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass for dead. Fitzgerald recalls a story told to him by his father, who claimed to have met God deep in the wilderness. According to the story, this higher power presented itself as a squirrel, which Fitzgerald's father proceeded to shoot, and then eat. The film leaves us to ponder the specific meaning of the tale in Fitzgerald's ensuing silence, but the general gist of it is clear – The Revenant presents a beautiful, terrible world ordered solely by the survival of the fittest; one in which existential and cosmological musings pale in comparison to the cold, brutal facts of nature.

The environment here is brutal and uncompromising, shot extensively in low angles and wide lenses to invoke nature's towering dominance over man. Lubeszki’s now-infamous digital photography combines the sheer beauty of the landscapes with its unforgiving treatment towards all life. There are not as many long takes here as there were in Gravity or Birdman, but the few we do get are stunning with the 3-phase bear attack, the Arikara tribe ambush, and the horse chase sequences ranking among Lubezki's best work. Combined with a mobile digital camera that alternates gracefully between hyperactive and serene, The Revenant is one of the most visceral adventure-survival movies ever made.

Part action-adventure, survival-horror and western, The Revenant is a beautiful, gritty, uncomfortable experience that forces all involved through the ringer and then some. The B-movie revenge plot is treated with poetic reverence and given a masterful photographic treatment, all anchored by DiCaprio's latest in a long string of Oscar worthy performances. While the simple plot feels stretched at two and a half hours and doesn’t quite pack the powerful emotional punch that it wants to (the dream and flashback sequences in particular occasionally strike a false note), there's still more than enough to care deeply for Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who survives a gruesome, devastating bear attack and the loss of his half-native, half-American son, Hawk.

He delivers another compelling, ultra-committed and layered performance, which is mostly speechless given the character's grizzly injuries. Glass is a mostly solitary figure, enduring the majority of the film's brutal natural environments and circumstances alone. Left for dead by Fitzgerald, who lies to convince the rest of the addled pack that Glass can’t be saved, Glass ultimately seeks revenge. The revenge plot, though, doesn’t slow moving and back heavy, pays off violently and intelligently.

It’s a survival story in an unforgiving setting that’s akin to the epics and silent films of yore, but one that does not depict its marginalized characters as marginalized stereotypes. Glass frequently remembers his deceased Native American wife, and although the members of his expedition “see only the color of his face”, he lets Hawk accompany him in order to raise and protect him. The film touches on the mistreatment of natives in plot threads that are both powerful, yet often difficult to watch. Depicted in realistic fashion, Glass expectedly spends much of the film on the run from his aboriginal pursuers, yet the final moments of the film keep these antagonists from feeling lost in one-dimensional villainy.

“Revenant” as defined refers to a person brought back from the dead, and Hugh Glass almost literally fits the bill. A grieving widow-turned-dying grieving father, the man rises from his grave and pushes through some of the most brutal natural conditions seen on film this year, if not ever. The Revenant is certifiably epic, with its bleak and violent landscapes, yet surprisingly inspirational in its own subtle ways. It's sure to be a strong awards contender across the board.