The Revenant

January 7, 2016
Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' (2015)
Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' (2015)

When he was receiving the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director at last year’s Academy Awards, Alejandro González Iñárritu, was already preoccupied with his next feature. He had begun planning The Revenant as early as 2011 but put it on hold when lead actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, was required for The Wolf of Wall Street. In his spare time, Iñárritu made Birdman. The night after the Awards presentation he flew to Calgary to get back on the job.

The outcome is a career-defining film that tells us a lot about Iñárritu’s personality and his directorial style. He is an obsessive perfectionist in the manner of Stanley Kubrick – a quality some view as simple megalomania. He has a self-righteous contempt for the big budget trash being churned out by the Hollywood studios. He has a taste for grand themes and symbolism. He sees the cinema as an artform, not an entertainment.

Birdman satirised Hollywood’s infatuation with superheroes, but The Revenant gives us a vision of the American frontier that obliterates everything previously seen at the movies. It’s as dark and relentless as a Cormac McCarthy novel, and remained lodged in my mind like that author’s Blood Meridian (1985).

This may be a deterrent for some viewers, but The Revenant is an all-or-nothing proposition. There are numerous violent incidents but the real violence is embedded within the fabric of the movie, in the savagery of both nature and humanity. At two-and-a-half hours some have already referred to the film as an endurance test for the viewer, but it’s never dull.

A revenant is one who has returned from the dead, and this was the fate of legendary frontiersman, Hugh Glass. On a fur trapping expedition in 1822, in the region where the Missouri River passes through South Dakota, Glass was mauled by a bear. Believing that Glass’s wounds would prove fatal his companions left him to die in the woods. Yet the corpse regained consciousness, and in his broken, mutilated state managed to crawl and hobble 300 kilometres to the safety of Fort Kiowa.

Glass was not of a literary persuasion and left no first-hand account of his ordeal. This has allowed others to fill in the details. Richard Harris played a version of Glass in the 1971 film, Man in the Wilderness, which bears little resemblance to Iñárritu’s story. The chief source of The Revenant is a 2002 novel of the same name by Michael Punke, currently US Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

The Glass played by DiCaprio has lived among the Pawnee Indians. In flashbacks we learn that he had an Indian wife who was murdered by marauding troopers, leaving him to care for his half-cast son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). This Glass is a man suspended between two worlds, owing his livelihood to the settlers, but full of feeling for the Indians, who are viewed by the other trappers as savages.

They are savage enough in the film’s opening sequence, when the fur trappers’ camp is set upon by an Arikara raiding party. It’s a virtuoso piece of directing and camerawork, with point-of-view shots whirling back and forth between attackers and defenders. The thud of arrows hitting flesh, the detonation of guns, the rumbling of horses’ hooves and the screams of the dying give us a taste of Iñárritu’s uncompromising realism.

The survivors escape on a battered boat, still trying to hang on to the precious pelts that brought them to the forest. The leading personalities among the small band are soon sharply defined. Domhnall Gleeson plays the leader, Captain Henry, who strives to maintain some form of military discipline; Tom Hardy is John Fitzgerald, a hardened opportunist who cares only about his wages; Will Poulter is Jim Bridger, a teenager finding his way in this world.

The story of Glass and the bear is well known, but I can’t explain how the scene was created. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in the cinema – a moment to be experienced viscerally as well as visually.

The bear mauling was one of several personal trials for DiCaprio. A confirmed vegetarian, he ate (or tried to eat) raw offal, and spent hours in freezing water. We see him cauterising a wound, chewing on live fish, and pulling the guts out of a dead horse before clambering inside the carcass to keep warm. It’s acting, of course, but not many actors would throw themselves so completely into such a role. If DiCaprio doesn’t win Best Actor at the Oscars he should be given a special durability award.

Glass is driven by his desire for revenge on Fitzgerald, who deals with him and Hawk in the most treacherous fashion. His journey is punctuated by encounters with Indians, both friendly and hostile; and with a menacing group of French fur trappers. It’s gruelling and barbaric. The compensation for the viewer is the spectacular landscape through which the invalid drags himself.

Due to weather conditions it proved incredibly difficult to get the shots Iñárritu wanted. When the snow cleared up in Canada the entire operation was transferred to Argentina. The shooting dragged on interminably, with days on which the crew could film for no more than 40 minutes. Meanwhile the budget blew out from US $65 million to US $135 million.

The process was complicated by the determination of Iñárritu and his award-winning cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubetzy, to shoot the movie in natural daylight, with the long takes they used in Birdman. It would have been easier and cheaper to turn to CGI, but as George Miller showed in Mad Max: Fury Road, there is an immeasurable distance between an event captured by the camera and one concocted on a computer.

We can be thankful for Iñárritu’s bloody-minded determination to do the film exactly as he wanted, because The Revenant is a landmark achievement. Although it is recognisably a ‘revenge western’ and an epic story of survival, it takes a transcendental approach to the wilderness. The harsh magnificence of the landscape is set against the brutality of all human relations – between settlers and Indians, Americans and Frenchmen, and within the group of fur trappers. The sheer physicality of the narrative is counter-balanced by the cosmic grandeur of the theme, as Glass pits himself against God, Nature, and his own bloodthirsty species, in pursuit of justice.

The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Mark L. Smith & Alejandro González Iñárritu, after a novel by Michael Punke
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck
USA, rated MA 15+, 156 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 9th January, 2016.