Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Revenant (2015)

Leonardo DiCaprio conquers the wildnerness

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass), Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald), Domhnall Gleeson (Andrew Henry), Will Poulter (Jim Bridger), Forrest Goodluck (Hawk), Duane Howard (Elk Dog), Arthur Redcloud (Hikuc), Melaw Nakehk'o (Powaqa), Grace Dove (Glass's wife), Lukas Haas (Jones), Paul Anderson (Anderson)

The Revenant may have been one of the hardest films ever made. Iñárritu’s bleak survivalist masterpiece may not be the easiest watch – and certainly not the most fun – but it is something really unique and interesting, an attempt to completely submerse the audience in one character’s experience, with little interest in narrative, context or characterisation.

In 1823, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mawled by a bear while leading a group of trappers away from an Indian ambush. Slowing the rest of the men down, he is left in the care of a small party led by Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald abandons Glass to save his own skin – murdering Glass’ young son, he leaves Glass for dead, alone in the frozen wilderness.

This is a true experience film, that’s probably easier to admire and respect than it is to love, or even enjoy. As a technical accomplishment it is outstanding: it looks absolutely fantastic. Apparently all lit by natural light, the film has a dusk/dawn beauty to it throughout its running time that perfectly captures the harshness of the setting. The camera also unstintingly follows the burdens of its central character, close and personal with the action, often using hand held and Steadicam to throw us into the action: the three major “action” sequences have an almost unbearable intensity to them.

Iñárritu’s direction is masterful – this is a splendidly directed piece of cinema, a bravura display of accomplishment, which has the confidence to largely not draw attention to itself. In fact, that’s a major strength of the film – its technical brilliance, its striking editing and wonderful photography all serve the purpose of bringing us closer to the experience of Glass, throwing us into the world. The opening attack of the Indians on the trapper probably deserves a host of Oscars by itself, a frighteningly vivid, desperate conflict that the film throws the viewer right into the middle of. Similarly the fateful bear attack has a brutal efficiency about it that makes the viewer feel every bite and blow on DiCaprio's battered body.

It’s well known that Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for his role in the film. Possibly this was as much (if not more) a testament to his fierce commitment to this role than the actual performance. There is certainly no debate about that. Never mind the freezing cold conditions, DiCaprio spends a third of the film bound to a filthy stretcher before being swept down rapids, eating a raw fish from a lake, and climbing naked inside the guts of a dead (hopefully prop) horse… Throughout all this, a combination of his isolation and wounds means he says very little, but only growls and groans. It’s not an acting performance in the sense of a character creation – you learn very little about Glass, and other than his strength of will and hunger for revenge, little of what motivates him – but it is a complete physical performance. And DiCaprio probably deserves some sort of reward for leaving nothing in the dressing room in playing it.

The “character” acting is left far more to Tom Hardy as the weak, arrogant, blindly wilful Fitzgerald. Hardy’s performance was a little overlooked here, but it’s as fiercely committed as DiCaprio’s and, in many ways, is a more complex and intriguing character – a man with the force of will to lead but without the courage and integrity that makes a true leader of men. Yes he mumbles the dialogue – at times I did find it a little unclear what he was saying – but it is a very accomplished exercise in character creation from slight material. The rest of the cast are all equally strong – Will Poulter is terrific as a naïve Bridger, as is Domhnall Gleeson as the rigid Captain.

But the film is possibly so triumphant in its mise en scene that it overpowers the themes and narrative of the film. It is surprisingly easy to forget that Glass is a man powered by revenge, so completely is the focus on his survival. His past grief over his deceased wife is murky and unclear on first watching, not enough focus or context given to it by Iñárritu’s storytelling. Many of the “narrative” encounters that Glass has over the film are not particularly new or unique. Iñárritu’s film here is not really about the story, but the telling of it. And in focusing on the detail of delivering the story, it loses the heart and investment that a real story needs. Glass’s journey is terrible, his suffering huge, his perseverance and will striking – but I can’t say that I felt particularly emotionally involved with his struggle or got a sense of his emotional pain.

As such, this increasingly becomes a film that is easier to respect and admire than it is to love. Despite DiCaprio’s commitment and bravery as an actor, Glass is largely an enigma and the film itself is an immersion in an environment rather than a piece of drama. As a viewing experience it grips during its duration, but I’d be fascinated to see when I watch it again, will this be enough to make it last? Will a familiarity with the story allow the themes it attempts to deal with – revenge, grief etc. etc. – come out more strongly? Either way, any film that requires a second viewing is one that deserves recommendation.

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