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New Review: The Revenant (2015)

Updated on January 24, 2016

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Lukas Haas, Melaw Nakehk'o, Arthur Redcloud

The Revenant
is the most visceral and immersive survival story I’ve seen since 2013’s Gravity. You don’t just watch it, you experience it. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu puts the audience in the middle of a cold, harsh, and unforgiving wilderness right there with the movie’s battered and broken hero. For two and a half hours, the movie grabs you by the throat and doesn’t release you until the final fade out, but by then, the movie has already left a mark. In the end, I was so emotionally drained that I had difficulty standing up from my theater seat.

The movie, which takes place in the early 1820s, grabs you right from the word go. The movie opens with the Arikara Indians raiding the camp of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. People are shot in the head and neck with arrows that seem to fly out of nowhere, while others are slashed and dismembered. The violence is brutal and unrelenting, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki films the action is crisp long take shots that put you right in the middle of the fighting.

The survivors of the attack make it onto a raft and float down the river until the group’s navigator Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells them that it’ll be safer to travel back to their fort if they went on foot. Since Glass knows the wilderness better than anyone else in the group, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the group’s leader, obeys without question. This doesn’t sit well with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a selfish SOB who believes that they should have stayed on the raft (of course, he’s wrong).

Out on a morning hunt, Glass is attacked by a mother grizzly bear in a scene so grueling and graphic that it’s almost painful to watch. With his back torn to shreds and his throat slashed (how did he survive?), Andrew has three men -- Fitzgerald, Glass’ half-breed son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck, very good in his debut performance), and the sympathetic Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) -- stay behind with Glass on the promise that they give him a proper burial after he dies. Fitzgerald grows extremely impatient, kills Hawk, leaves the injured Glass in a shallow grave, and forces the conscience-stricken Bridger back to base with him to collect their payment for their services.

An adventure you won't forget!
An adventure you won't forget!

Glass crawls out of the grave and over to his dead son, and in one of the most haunting shots in the movie, he lays his head on his son’s body, and every breath he takes fogs up the lens. From there, the movie follows Glass as he befriends an Indian (Arthur Redcloud) who offers him food and shelter (and is later murdered by a militia of French thugs), flees from the Arikara Indians who attacked the camp at the beginning, and battles the elements as he attempts to make it back to civilization and exact his revenge against Fitzgerald.

What follows is a series of near misses and heart-stopping action scenes so bewitchingly shot by Lubezki that the effect is literally breathtaking. Just look at the night time shot of a search party in the woods, which is lit solely by the torches they carry, or the shot of a small militia of Arikara Indians galloping in the morning mist. Perhaps the biggest “How did they do that?!” shot comes when Glass, during one chase sequence, rides his horse off a cliff, and we see both man and beast fall into a tree below. If Lubezki doesn’t take home the gold in February, there’s gonna be hell to pay!

Also deserving of an Oscar is lead DiCaprio, who isn’t given a whole lot of dialogue here, but turns in such a focused and intense performance that he commands your attention every second he’s on screen. While it’s not at all easy to watch over half of the physically agonizing trials he’s made to endure (I don’t think that even Jim Caviezel suffered this much when he played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ), the screenplay by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith develops Glass enough to make him a character worthy of our sympathy and love.

Another great performance turned in by DiCaprio!
Another great performance turned in by DiCaprio!

The other actors are just as strong. Hardy turns in another stellar performance as the cowardly Fitzgerald, but the two supporting players that really stood out were Gleeson and Poulter. Gleeson is proving that he’s every bit as great of an actor as his father Brendan, and while I may have been harsh on Poulter in The Maze Runner (actually, it was more the character he played than the actor himself), here the young lad turns in a superb performance of fascinating complexity and creates a surprisingly sympathetic character.

And while Glass' mission is initially one of revenge, and there is a very gory showdown between the two men near the end, this is not a simple revenge tale. Glass’ tale has him not only saving the daughter of an Akiraka Indian chief during an ugly rape scene, but he also receives a solid piece of wisdom about vengeance from the Indian who saved him early on. There is a sense of spiritual growth within the character. Note the dream sequence where he sees his dead son in an abandoned church, or the particular line he repeats during the final showdown with Fitzgerald. The Revenant is a very violent movie, but violence isn't its theme.

The movie is based on a 2002 novel by Michael Punke, and while I haven’t read the book (which will have to change soon enough), taken on its own terms, The Revenant is an exhilarating and unforgettable cinematic experience. There have been many films set in the American frontier, there hasn’t been one that’s felt anything like this. In fact, The Revenant is a movie unlike any that I’ve experienced before. It’s an amazing motion picture, and one of 2015’s towering achievements.

Rated R for graphic violence, gory images, a sexual assault, profanity, brief nudity

Final Grade: **** (out of ****)

What did you think of this movie? :D

Cast your vote for The Revenant (2015)

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