This time last year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu dazzled the cinema-going public with his quirky comedy, Birdman. Now he dazzles us again, with something entirely different – a bleak, gruelling historical drama, based on a real life story, a film that pulses with bone-jarring violence offset by eerily beautiful location photography. The Revenant looks set to dominate this year’s Oscars and it’s clearly a hard-won victory. At times, the actors look as though they’re going through as gruelling an experience as their screen counterparts. Here is the life of an 1820s fur trapper in all its grimy glory. It doesn’t look an appealing way to make a living.
The story concerns an expedition into the American wilderness in the depths of winter. Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) is the team’s scout and he’s accompanied by his mixed-race son, Hawk (Forest Goodluck). Barely ten minutes into the action, the men are attacked by Arikara warriors and only a handful of them escape with their lives. Matters aren’t helped when, shortly afterwards, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear (a prolonged scene of almost unwatchable savagery) and is left close to death. The team leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleason) decides to strike out for their home base and leaves Glass in the care of seasoned trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and callow youth Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Henry instructs Fitzgerald to give Glass a decent burial when ‘his time comes.’ But Fitzgerald is a survivalist. He murders Hawk and leaves Glass for dead, throwing him into a half dug grave and abandoning him to a slow and painful death. But Glass’s hunger for revenge somehow keeps him alive…
This is the second time the story has inspired a film. In 1971, Man In The Wilderness starring Richard Harris, used the basis of it but changed Glass’s name to Zachary Bass. Inaritu’s film actually sticks closer to the real tale and has the added advantage of Emmanuel Lubezski’s stunning cinematography, his fluid camerawork soaring and sweeping throughout the action to create an almost immersive experience. Often you’ll find yourself closer to the action than is strictly comfortable. In one scene, Glass’s breathing actually fogs the camera lens – in another, blood spatters the screen. And then there are sequences featuring Glass’s fever dreams, strange, hypnotic, almost hallucinatory. It all makes for grim but compelling viewing. Many will be repelled by the extreme violence and a scene where Glass takes refuge from the cold inside a freshly killed horse – yes, you read that right – isn’t going to sit well with any vegetarians in the audience. (Strangely, this isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem. It was an old buffalo hunter’s trick to keep warm inside the gutted carcass of a freshly killed bison. Like a fleshy electric blanket).
The Revenant is an extraordinary slice of cinema, an epic story of survival, of man against nature. If Di Caprio ends up lifting the best actor Oscar (despite speaking only a handful of lines in the entire film) I for one won’t begrudge it to him. I’d say he’s earned it, if only in the scene where he’s required to devour a live fish.