‘The Revenant’ is a brutally beautiful piece of poetry in motion

The Revenant
photo: courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

To be perfectly frank, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is precisely what we as moviegoers yearn to see every time we enter a cinema or rent a movie on-demand. The Revenant is an enthralling, brutally beautiful piece of visceral poetry in motion, and it’s carried by unforgettable turns from some of Hollywood’s brightest stars. More importantly, it speaks to the primal desire we all have to be with those we love, even if we are separated by life and death.

Filmed sequentially using only natural light and minimal CGI, The Revenant tells a gruesome survival-revenge story set in the uncharted American wilderness sometime during the 1800s. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), legendary frontiersman, is guiding a group of pelt hunters through a forest when a violent gang of Indians descends upon the camp. The ensuing madness serves as the film’s opening, and by the time Glass finds his way to the lone getaway boat most of the men he was hired to serve have been killed. Those that remain are unquestionably shaken by the sights they have just witnessed, including Glass’ teenage son, and many question whether they can survive the night.

As Glass and the men journey further and further into the dense forest a heavy snow starts to fall. A man named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) begins to make his concerns over Glass’ plan known to the group, much to the chagrin of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), but before things can get get too heated Glass is attacked by a bear. He barely survives, forcing the other men to carry him, but as the weather worsens their patience grows thin. Some want Glass killed, others want to leave him to die. Captain Henry picks three to stay behind with Glass and watch over him until his time comes, including Fitzgerald, and the rest continue towards civilization.

It takes little more than a day for Fitzgerald to grow tired of tending to Glass, so he makes up a lie to abandon the wounded guide and continue onward. Fitzgerald assumes Glass will succumb to his injuries, but he is wrong. Minute by minute, Glass fights for his life, and as soon as he finds the strength to return to his feet he begins the hunt for Fitzgerald. He doesn’t know where he is, but he knows where he is going, and with his vast knowledge of the wilderness Glass plots a path to vengeance that will push him to the very brink of physical and mental exhaustion, all while embattled in a constant fight against harsh winter conditions.

There are more twists and turns to be found in The Revenant than I could begin to count, but much of what makes this film great is the unpredictable nature of its journey. Much like how Glass has no idea what hell mother nature will bring his way, he also has no idea what he will find when he eventually reaches Fitzgerald. Likewise, Fitzgerald hasn’t the slightest clue what strength Glass possess, nor does he think his past mistakes will ever catch up with him. Both men live boldly, accepting the fact they will die and refusing to let that stop them from living, but the way it’s expressed through their individual arcs could not be more different. Glass has to battle to attempt closing deep emotional wounds, while every move Fitzgerald makes pushes him further and further into his own undoing. What’s important to remember is that each man makes their own choices, and each is willing to endure whatever consequences may come as a result of their actions. In the face of an uncertain future they do not fret. They breathe, and they fight with everything they have in them to keep breathing as long as they are able.

Leonardo DiCaprio is no stranger to great performances, but he finds yet another way to shock and amaze with his vivid portrayal of Glass. It’s clear in every frame of this film that he has fully committed to the part, abandoning all notion of the actor we know and becoming one with the material. Hardy is no different, losing himself in the twisted, temperamental mind of Fitzgerald. Both are tasked with portraying men who have seen far too much of man’s brutality toward his own brother to ever trust anyone again, and they carry this emotional weight in varying ways that never cease to captivate the viewer. The same can be said for supporting cast members Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter, though both have considerably less to do than the leads. They each must face their true selves and live with what they learn in those moments.

Still, the true star of The Revenant may be cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also helped Iñárritu create the seamless look of the critical darling Birdman back in 2014. His work behind the camera transforms the events of The Revenant into something that rises far above and beyond what is expected of action films today. His long, swooping takes pull you into each scene with a closeness that may give some bouts of anxiety. You can see the Glass’ breath fogging up the lens in certain sequences, while in others you may have to make out the action through splashes of water, blood or a combination of the two. It’s as if Lubezki has mastered the art of capturing only the most visceral moments, and it’s because of that fact that The Revenant feels more like a series of paintings come to life than just another survival thriller set in early America. For two-plus hours you are transported from the comfort of your theater into the thick, frigid and unmapped forests of the Western United States, and you never know what might come next.

While some will no doubt see the torment Glass endures to quench his thirst for revenge as an abuse of punishment-based storytelling, there is no denying the visual beauty behind Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest creation. The Revenant is perhaps the most realistic, haunting and genuinely unnerving film to be released in the last decade, and it’s made infinitely better thanks to a terrific commanding turn from screen veteran Leonardo DiCaprio. I don’t know how anyone involved in this picture could hope to outdo themselves with future projects, but I am certainly interested to see what they each develop from here. It’s rare that all the components to a film come together even under ideal conditions, but The Revenant creates magic out of the impossible, and through doing so captures our imaginations as moviegoers in a way no other modern film can claim.