THE REVENANT film review By Mark Geraghty December 7, 2015
Releasing in Australia on January 7, 2015
To refer to Alejandro Innaritu’s THE REVENANT as a “movie” or a “film” relative to the vast majority of what is released these days would be understating the power of what the Spanish filmmaker has delivered with his latest offering. Make no mistake, THE REVENANT does not flinch in its depiction of 18th Century frontier America and many may find Innaritu’s determination for authenticity too much. There are no real heroes and the villain, if one truly exists in such a compromised environment, is not a one note cardboard cutout. Once upon a time, John Ford’s films about the American frontier fell firmly on the side of favouring the “White Man” and the idea that Manifest Destiny should supplant all other established cultures as European settlers moved from America’s East Coast across the great plains of the country’s middle, up into the Rocky Mountains and eventually on to the lighter, brighter West Coast. Innaritu’s film presents a dark, grim view of this idea, depicting the European frontiersmen to be no more evolved than the American Indian cultures they went about displacing through a hundred years of “progress” across the United States of America.
Innaritu and Mark L. Smith’s screenplay opens with an extended battle sequences that establishes their political viewpoint up front and demonstrates the cultural clash in the most violent way imaginable. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-Pawnee Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) are hunting food away from their fur-trapping expedition when a group of Arikara Indians attack the main party in search of an abducted girl, Powaqa (Melwa Nakehk’o). The intensity of this sequence, which lasts for several minutes, has already been compared by other critics who have reviewed the film as comparable to the Western cinema genre’s equivalent of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s opening, and it’s a very good comparison. Innaritu’s sequence is more confronting, as he and his wonderfully-talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki opt for more close-up shots and point the camera up from the ground or at eye level to capture the mayhem that unravels as arrows, tomahawks and rifles tear apart the two combating groups. Glass, Hawk, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter), along with a small group of other survivors escape via their river boat, but soon realise the Arikara will cut them off further down the river and decide to abandon ship and head over the mountains to get back to the safety of Fort Kiowa.
Soon after, Glass, while scouting ahead, inadvertently crosses the path of several bear cubs. He realises all too late that the mother bear is behind him and is unable to fire his rifle before she attacks him. The sheer brutality of this scene will leave many viewers reeling, as there has never been anything like this sequence seen in a film. Not only is the sequence brutal, it’s long. Innaritu deliberately protracts the bear attack out, as the massive creature attacks Glass twice.over the course of several minutes. Glass suffers extensive injuries to his throat, back and legs, but recovers his rifle momentarily and gets a shot off, hitting the bear in the neck. Enraged, the monster attacks again, determined to finish the job, but Glass with all of his remaining strength manages to unsheath his hunting knife and land enough blows to halts the animal’s attack. Matters are made worse as the giant creature knocks Glass off the edge of the embankment into the gully below, but, mortally wounded itself, comes crashing down upon him, crushing one of his legs as the giant beast comes to rest on top of him. The other members of the Rocky Mountain Trading Company’s party happen upon Glass and provide medical attention, but no one is convinced he’ll survive. Captain Henry has a makeshift stretcher made and the men take turns at carrying Glass until they reach the base of the Rocky Mountains. Realising it will be impossible to carry him over the mountains, Henry asks for volunteers to stay with Glass and Hawk until a rescue party can be sent. Fitzgerald and Bridger volunteer, but only after Henry makes it financially beneficial for them to do so. This proves to be a mistake on Henry’s part, as Fitzgerald proves to be totally unreliable and his lack of humanity comes to the fore as he murders Hawk, lies to Bridger about seeing the Arikara on the river bank and leaves Glass for dead after trying to bury him alive!
THE REVENANT is a stunning film and Innaritu does not swerve around difficult subject matter. He simply crashes through it and, along the way, drags the viewer with him. The performances are just about as physical as they come, as the character’s reactions to their environment are extremely primal and, in most instances, are borne out of a need to just survive; regardless of whether it’s the attacking Indians, Bear or harsh weather. There’s no doubt it was a difficult film to shoot and most of the main players don’t appear to be acting; they look as though they are simply worn out from the conditions. There’s blazing intensity from both DiCaprio and Hardy and the latter (although at times in unintelligible in terms of dialogue) captures the off-beat internal logic of his character to turn in yet another strong 2015 performance. The film will, no doubt, be considered favourably in the 2015 Award season, but its grim subject matter and oblique stab at spirituality requires too much contemplation on the part of the viewer at a time when the world finds itself confronted with these all too familiar concepts streaming through the daily news channels from other parts of the globe. THE REVENANT only serves to reinforce that the struggle for survival is one that has always been with humanity and will continue, always...