The history of cinema is riddled with noble failures and filmmakers’ hubris. Take Francis Ford Coppola. After meeting Oscar-winning success with Best Pictures The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II in 1972 and 1974, the director nearly bankrupted himself making 1979’s massively over-schedule and over-budget Apocalypse Now. But he proved the naysayers wrong when the film that almost drove him to madness became another critical and commercial smash.
Now we have Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu. First catching the attention of the Academy with 2000’s Amores Perros, and subsequent successes Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010), he took home Oscar gold with last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), before diving into his own mad pursuit of moviemaking perfection, The Revenant. What could have been a modest survival tale blossomed into an epic undertaking both in front of and behind the camera when Iñárritu and his indispensable cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, made the decision to shoot their drama about real-life frontiersman and trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on real locations utilizing only natural light. While this approach lends an unparalleled sense of realism to Glass’ slow, arduous journey toward revenge after being left for dead, it limited shooting to a few hours a day at most in their Canadian locations, which stand in for the American West. The movie fell behind schedule, the budget ballooned, and the much-needed snow on the ground melted as an 80-day schedule stretched to nine months, eventually necessitating a production relocation to the wintry southern tip of Argentina.
The gamble paid off. The tale itself might not tread new ground, but Chivo’s cinematography is the stuff of legend—and will quite possibly net him his third straight Oscar after winning for 2013’s Gravity and the aforementioned Birdman.
The digitally captured movie opens with flashbacks of a state-sanctioned massacre that claims the lives of an entire tribe of Native Americans. Glass looks on in horror as his Pawnee wife (Grace Dove) is cut down and their young son Hawk is set ablaze, before Chivo trains his camera low to the ground during a slow tracking shot (the first of many) that hovers just above a shallow stream flowing through a river of trees. The frigid air nips at the dirty, heavily bearded face of Glass and the burn-scarred Hawk (newcomer Forrest Goodluck) as they hunt a deer. It’s about a decade after the attack that changed their lives, and Glass is employed as a guide for the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company. The two are joined by Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), another historical figure, who’s not much older than Hawk. The year is 1823, and nature is just as much of a threat as the Arikara braves who are about to lead a surprise attack at their base camp against Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and the 40-plus men Glass has been guiding for months.
As Glass fires the shot that fells his prey, the sound of his rifle catches the attention of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), another tracker who barely escapes the masterfully choreographed carnage that follows. Iñárritu and Chivo—whose Birdman appeared as though shot in one long, unbroken take—present the onslaught with very few edits, moving circularly from killer to victim, back to killer-as-victim, surveying the ensuing bloodbath.
Barely escaping by boat with very few of their precious pelts, and even fewer of their men, Capt. Henry, Glass and the survivors head downriver as we discover the reason for the brutal attack. Elk Dog (Duane Howard), the Arikara tribe’s leader, is searching for his daughter, who’s been kidnapped by white men. Sadly, in this New World, it’s not just the land that’s being raped.
Speaking of, it’s been widely reported that DiCaprio’s character is sexually assaulted by a bear in the film. While this claim is nonsense, Glass is mauled by a Grizzly, which falls in line with historical record, unlike many of the film’s fictional flourishes. The attack, which is presented in one single, unflinching take with Chivo’s camera remaining close to DiCaprio’s face as he’s tossed around like a rag doll and shredded, tops the earlier slaughter for graphic horror and intensity. The sequence is a miracle of visual effects work; you’ll swear what you’re watching is real—if you can stomach looking at it. And like the camp assault, this isn’t just a random attack. The Grizzly is only protecting her cubs, and she loses her life because of it.
Capt. Henry tasks Fitzgerald and Bridger to remain behind with their gravely stricken guide and his son; they’re to bury him when he succumbs to his injuries, as what’s left of the hunting party continues the long journey back to their outpost with what little haul they have left. Alas, Fitzgerald is a real bastard—and a racist killer, to boot. As Bridger goes off to fill his canteen in a nearby river, Fitzgerald brutally murders Hawk as Glass looks on helplessly, unable to move.
For the remainder of the picture, Glass crawls across 200 miles of ever-deepening snow seeking revenge on the murderer who steals both his supplies and son’s life, but it’s a tale of vengeance that’s grounded by a foundation of relatable loss: Glass has lost his son and his wife, Elk Dog has lost his daughter, the bear cubs have lost their mother.
Time may prove The Revenant to be another cinematic landmark alongside Apocalypse Now. But in the here and now, enjoy it for the spellbinding entertainment it is, as you watch one of our great actors punish himself for his art in one of the most visually astounding pictures you’re likely to see.
The Revenant ***1/2
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Grace Dove, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge, Christopher Rosamond, Robert Moloney, Lukas Haas, Brendan Fletcher, Tyson Wood, McCaleb Burnett, Fabrice Adde, Arthur RedCloud, Melaw Nakehk’o and Duane Howard. Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro González Iñárritu, based in part on the novel by Michael Punke. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.