Normally when stories of production woes emerge it spells inevitable doom, but twice in 2015 we've seen two of the year's best films emerge unscathed, if not better for having struggled to completion. One was George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road; the other is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's unforgiving, poetic tale of reflection and icy revenge, The Revenant. As a follow-up to his upbeat and brisk Oscar-winner, Birdman, Inarritu couldn't have gone in a more stark direction. As wondrous to behold as it is punishing to endure, The Revenant is Inarritu staking his claim to the most unique movie of the year. Nothing else looks quite like it; no other film puts you through the emotional wringer quite like it, either.
Maybe it's the merciless weather Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and much of the crew were put through, but everything about this film is brutal. The only thing more chilling than the raging blizzard are the chilling acts of barbarism in a world without mercy; where surviving is the only thing that can and ever will matter. DiCaprio, looking shaggier than ever in his career, plays Hugh Glass, a tracker and frontiersman in 1820 Wyoming, working for a fur company in the snowy Rocky Mountains. When a Native American tribe attacks, it's every man for himself...as long as he doesn't forget his bale of bear pelts. In fact, pelts are the only thing that seem to matter to the cruel John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a nasty, racist piece of work who has a special dislike for Glass and his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The crew barely survives the attack, which is captured in fluid chaos by DP Emmanuel Lubezki (winner of two Oscars for Gravity and Birdman), and it's up to Glass to navigate everyone home.
Cruelty on top of cruelty is heaped upon Glass, but it all begins when he's viciously mauled by a raging bear. The attack itself might be one of the grizzliest scenes captured on film. But for all of its ferocity, there's something beautiful about it, as well. The technical wizardry of it, as DiCaprio is literally battered from tree to tree, pummeled, bitten, and clawed, is remarkable. You'll spend the rest of the film wondering how they pulled it off. With Glass near death, the scrupulous captain (Domhnall Gleeson, who is in everything this season) figures they can't outrun the pursuing Natives and carry him along. So he offers up a ton of money to anyone that will stay behind with him until they can return with reinforcement. The opportunistic Fitzgerald agrees, along with Hawk and the innocent youngster, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). But it isn't long after they are left alone that Fitzgerald commits a heartless act, captured right in front of the immobile Glass, which demands vengeance.
And vengeance is what he seeks; it boils in Glass's savage blood. This is a DiCaprio we've never seen before, feral and unwavering, agony and fury captured in his burning eyes. The level of commitment he brings to the role is extraordinary, but the same goes for Hardy who at this point can mumble villainy with the best of them. Both actors look like they have an extra layer of bark on their rugged skin. Not everyone could have endured the rigors Innaritu put them all through, shooting only a few hours a day to capture the most natural light he possibly could. Much of the crew quit; the delays stretched into weeks and months, but the results made it all worth it.
Admittedly, The Revenant sticks to such a grim note throughout that it may be tough for some to handle. It's an endurance test, for sure, but the darkness is broken up by Malick-ian dream sequences capturing the expansive vistas in which Glass makes his painful journey. These scenes are what drives him further than any man should be capable to go; to survive wounds that would fell a regular man, to move on despite starvation and freezing temperatures. They're key to the story even if they feel somewhat separated from the narrative. DiCaprio gives this film its beating heart, while a surprisingly good Poulter provides the slim strand of goodness coursing through it.The film ends exactly as it should, with the promise of more violence. The Revenant gives no quarter; it's a challenging, brilliant film that proves once again that Inarritu is unparalleled when at the top of his game, and fortunately for us he always is.
Rating: 4 out of 5