After seeing The Revenant yesterday I called my dad, who is as big a fan of Westerns as I am. I mentioned that he might have a tough time hearing the dialogue, as he is hard of hearing and some of the characters have thick accents. But as I mentioned this it occurred to me that The Revenant is one of those films that pass what some call the true test of cinema–it can be understood even without dialogue.
Directed with majestic sweep by Alejandro G. Innaritu, shot with breathtaking beauty by Emmanuel Lubezki, and scored hauntingly by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, The Revenant is a film of the senses, even if film only provides us two senses–sight and sound. But the other senses kick in. We can almost feel the cold, taste the snow, and smell the campfires.
The story is of mountain man and fur trapper Hugh Glass. His story may or may not have happened the way we see it (it provided the story of an earlier film, Man in the Wilderness with Richard Harris). After an attack by Indians that decimates a company of trappers, led by Domnhall Gleeson, Glass (Leonard DiCaprio) comes between some cubs and their mother. He is mauled by the bear, and clinging to life is left with two compatriots, who promise Gleeson they will watch over him until they can return, or he succumbs to the wounds. One of these is a young Jim Bridger (that name is known to any student of the West), played by Will Poulter, and the scurrilous Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who is always out for number one. Also staying with DiCaprio is his teenage son, whose mother was a Pawnee.
Hardy ends up killing the boy, while DiCaprio watches, helpless. Bridger is unaware of this, and Hardy tells him the Indians are nearby, and they must leave DiCaprio behind. Hardy fashions him a shallow grave and leaves him for dead. The rest of the film is DiCaprio, bent on revenge, dragging himself to civilization.
As mentioned in other articles about the film, it is brutal. DiCaprio’s injuries are vividly rendered by the makeup artists, although even the supposed truth is more brutal–Glass had exposed ribs in his back, had a broken leg and set his own splint, and realized his wounds were festering so he laid against a rotting log so that maggots could clean his wounds. Instead we see scenes of DiCaprio helplessly head down rapids, hurtle off a cliff on a horse, hit some tree limbs, and then sleep inside that very same horse (now, of course, dead). He will encounter a Pawnee who helps him, and eludes the Arikara, who are looking for the kidnapped daughter of their chief.
The Revenant is an incredible visual experience. For a while I felt like I had never seen a movie before. The Indian attack is amazing, consisting of some very long shots (Innaritu, after Birdman, seems to love them). The choreography of this must have been intense, as the camera, standing in for us, is in the middle of it all. You may find yourself ducking arrows, even though it is not shot in 3-D. At one point the moving camera attaches itself to a moving horse, and I have no idea how that was done.
The other memorable scene is the bear attack. It is sudden, vicious, and I may not have breathed during it. The bear is CGI, of course, and that shows at times, but it doesn’t alleviate the terror and violence of the scene.
Luzbecki, who is likely to win his third straight Oscar (he won previously for Gravity and Birdman) has done wonders. You may think that anyone can shoot the beautiful scenery (it was filmed mostly in the Canadian Rockies) but Luzbecki does something more–the scenery is both beautiful and menacing, the gray winter a constant threat to life. I shivered a bit when I saw men walk through freezing water–the mountain men did it, but so did the actors–and you get the definite sense that life is precarious in such a situation.
DiCaprio is outstanding. He is the likely Oscar winner, even though it is a mostly silent part (he does say many more words that Jean Dujardin did in The Artist, though). Oscar wins are often a matter of timing–I can’t say this is his best performance ever, though it is right there–but certainly the punishment he must have taken for this role will earn him votes. Hardy is also very good as a despicable person. We don’t learn much about him, except that his father thought that God was a squirrel, and killed and ate it.
My only quibble is that the ending drags on a bit too long. The film is two and a half hours long and frankly, I needed to pee. We can guess the ending, though not how it happens. I was thinking to myself, “Just kill him so I can go relieve myself.” But that’s small potatoes. The Revenant is an outstanding work of art.