The Revenant- Brutal, uncompromising, and beautiful

Westerns have long been a staple of Hollywood, and while many have employed beautiful cinematography, few are as uncompromising and brutal as Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant. Based on the true story of Hugh Glass (based in part on a novel by Michael Punke), the movie takes place in the 1820s during a fur trapping expedition during which glass is attacked and mauled by a female grizzly protecting her cubs. That scene, along with the opening attack on the expedition by a group of Arikara Indians, sets the tone early on in the film, pitting extreme violence against the beautiful scenery.What follows is an incredible tale of survival as Glass, who is left for dead, makes his way back. It’s a different type of movie for Inarritu to follow up to 2014’s Oscar winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which reportedly endured a difficult shoot in extreme cold weather and caused several crew members to quit production. The director certainly put his cast of actors to the test during the nine month shoot in remote locations in Canada and Argentina, and the payoff is certainly evident up on the big screen. And it is on the big screen that this movie is best seen, to get the full effect of the gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who used only natural lighting to achieve the maximum sense of realism.
The movie opens with Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) speaking to his young son by his Pawnee wife as French soldiers attack their village. Things move forward to a fur trapping expedition in the 1820s, where Glass is joined by his now older son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). An attack by the Arikara, searching for their chief’s daughter who was taken from the tribe, forces the group to flee for their lives. As they make their way back to civilization, Glass is brutally mauled by a bear, and Bridger and Fitzgerald are tasked to stay behind with him and give him a proper burial when he doesn’t make it. Things transpire where the two leave Glass for dead, and the trapper, motivated by revenge, struggles to survive against the elements and Indians to find those who left him. The film does wrap up in a satisfying manner, though some may be conflicted by the final shot before the credits roll. I won’t reveal that here, but I will say I had to think on that final scene after leaving the theater to come to terms with my own feelings towards it.

As stated before, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, with the shots of snow covered mountains, lush forests, and starry nights. Using only natural lighting allows the viewer to truly feel being there in the movie without resorting to the trickery of 3D. Watching Glass plunge into an icy river to escape an Arikara patrol can make one shiver and wish for their own fire to get warm. The beautiful deep woods have brilliant greens that just pop off the screen and provide contrast to other scenes of bare trees in the winter snow. Some dream sequences allow Inarritu to indulge in a bit more fantastical imagery, such as when Glass has visions of his dead Pawnee wife hovering above him or when he stands before a mound of bones. When violence erupts on the screen you can almost smell the blood when arrows pierce necks or the bear’s claws rend flesh. Other scenes reflect the natural beauty, especially scenes of the night sky and a trio of elk swimming across a river. Every shot just feels like it has a visceral quality to it, allowing us to feel more a part of Glass’s journey of survival. Adding to the visual splendor is the excellent musical score by Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto. The music soars epically for those shots of mountain vistas and percussion is used to heighten tension during a chase through the snow.
But music and beautiful pictures only carry a movie so far if we can’t connect with the characters, and it’s here that the cast does deliver in spades. DiCaprio is phenomenal here, conveying great emotion and hardship through very little dialogue, some of which is spoken in two Indian dialects (DiCaprio learned to speak both Pawnee and Arikara for the film). The role is a physically demanding one, and DiCaprio proves that he was up to the task. Hardy delivers as the film’s villain, even though you can almost sympathize with his actions as he is simply driven to survive, despite the cost to any around him. Poulter brings a nice sense of being conflicted, a man torn between wanting to do the right thing yet not being strong enough to really stand up to Fitzgerald. Gleeson is also very good as the expedition leader who becomes faced with making a difficult decision, and then who tries to set things right. The supporting cast all do well in their roles, be they rival French trappers or Arikara tribesmen. Every one feels authentic and doesn’t hit a sour note, which is remarkable in the face of the reportedly difficult production. It all pays off nicely without any character feel more like a caricature. DiCaprio has already taken home a Golden Globe for his performance, and his portrayal as Glass is certainly Oscar worthy. I’ll also make a note of the bear here: As a CGI creation the bear is very well done and looks and behaves in a very realistic manner. The vicious attack is very well staged and looks quite painful. The lighting in that scene helped play a part in the realism as the bear charged through the underbrush to protect her cubs from a perceived threat. The fact that the scene looked so good went a long way in maintaining the high quality of the rest of the film. Since it was a pivotal moment in the movie, had that attack fallen flat or looked too fake the tone of the movie could have been altered. Fortunately for us the effects team was up to the task, and delivered a scene that was chilling in its brutality.
In all, Inarritu delivers a powerful film with The Revenant. The tale of survival and revenge may be a familiar one, but rarely is the tale told with such uncompromising brutality and extraordinary beauty as it is here. Stellar performances, excellent music, and fantastic cinematography all come together in delivering one of the best movies of the year. Definitely catch this one in the theater on the big screen for the best experience. This is one that does stay with you after the credits roll.

9.5/10

Thomas Juretus

Born in 1963. Enjoy videogames, movies, comics- anything that tells a story. Have written three novels (The Zarchler Chronicles Book One: The Cassandra Crisis, Shalgroth The Zarchler Chronicles: Book Two, Madman's War The Zarchler Chronicles: Book Three) all published and available through PublishAmerica. Currently working on my fourth book, a sci-fi/murder mystery.

Thomas Juretus

Born in 1963. Enjoy videogames, movies, comics- anything that tells a story. Have written three novels (The Zarchler Chronicles Book One: The Cassandra Crisis, Shalgroth The Zarchler Chronicles: Book Two, Madman's War The Zarchler Chronicles: Book Three) all published and available through PublishAmerica. Currently working on my fourth book, a sci-fi/murder mystery.

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