Leo probably thought he was done with cold water after 1997. Reigning Oscar Best Director Alejandro Iñárritu had other ideas. He reteamed with fellow Oscar-carrying director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, for this frontier tale of Hugo Glass (DiCaprio), the guide for a team of fur trappers led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) making their way through the wilderness with a precious cargo of pelts. Glass speaks Pawnee with his Native American son, Hawk (Isaiah Tootoosis), who accompanies them on the expedition and is rejected by the group, particularly Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who bears the cranial scars of a run-in with a hostile group of natives. After fleeing from an attack, a meeting with a grizzly bear causes tensions to boil over, with Glass alone, gravely injured, and facing impossible odds in an unremittingly hostile environment.
The bulk of the film follows Glass’ struggle to survive long enough to wreak vengeance on the colleagues that wronged him. Viewers expecting a grimy revenge flick will be disappointed. This is a film that takes its time to establish mood and underscore the gravity of the peril Glass faces. It’s not that it’s dull (an accusation some friends of mine levelled, which I completely reject) – instead it’s a film that realizes that the landscape and environment are key characters just as much as Glass, Fitzgerald and Henry are, as well as the roving groups of Native Americans that stand ready to kill anyone stealing what’s rightfully theirs.
The filmmakers decided only to film with natural light, one of many choices which made this an apparently arduous shoot – I felt cold just looking at Leo crawling on his belly into an icy river – but Lubezki proved last year with Birdman (as well as extraordinary work like Children of Men, The Tree of Life and Gravity) that when it comes to cinematography, nobody does it better. The Revenant cements that reputation even further, with director and cinematographer combining to produce some astonishing, unforgettable images. The opening battle, the bear attack and a breathtaking chase on horseback are like nothing I’ve seen before, seamlessly choreographed in unbroken, close-up takes. I’ll go out on a limb and say that come February 28th, Lubezski’s making it three Oscars in three years – place your bets (responsibly).
The film has the odd problem, of course. Tom Hardy’s incredible, versatile run continues, but his accent-heavy dialogue is occasionally lost in the mix; the role of the French pelt traders meddling in the story is never quite clear, and Glass’ backstory, and how he came to have a Native American son, is perhaps underexplored. The film’s long at 156 minutes, but I felt this fitted the subject matter and as an experience it’s much more profound than the flashy but instantly forgettable Birdman. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s electronic-led score is a great choice, and a departure from the usual fare that would accompany a snowy western (Quentin Tarantino plumped for Morricone himself for The Hateful Eight, which is understandable). Supporting turns are strong, particularly Will Poulter as the hapless boy, Jim Bridger, and Gleeson as Captain Henry. You also need a big screen and a great sound system to appreciate what’s been accomplished here – the back of a plane seat is not going to cut it.
Aside from the brutal shooting environment, the main narrative accompanying The Revenant has been the predicted end to DiCaprio’s long run without an Oscar. At the moment he’s odds-on to go home with the statue, and it’s fairly hard to argue – the sheer commitment it takes to put this suffering on screen is remarkable, but anyone can throw themselves in and out of rivers. The nature of the story requires Glass to convey so much with just his expression, his gait, his stare, and various sub-human mutterings. It’s a powerhouse performance and although I think he’s hit these heights before and been overlooked (particularly in The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed and The Aviator), it looks like Iñárritu will succeed where Scorcese has thus far failed, and secure the top prize for his lead.
The Revenant now showing in cinemas nationwide. For more information visit the official website.