The Revenant review: Inarritu

The Revenant review: Inarritu's vision of survival is a brutal punch to the gut

Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

It is one of the most visually stunning studio films in recent memory.

But whether it's the "best film of the year" is certainly debatable; it certainly could take the prize for "most gruelling," or "most brutal".

Now for the big question: Will Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's The Revenant be anointed Best Picture in two day at the Oscars, a year after the same honour was bestowed on his film Birdman?

Also read - Gods of Egypt review: a laughable movie that's ridiculously watchable

It may sound blasphemous to many of you, but after watching it I hope not. But it probably will.

That's because it's vastly inferior to The Big Short, The Martian, Spotlight, Bridge of Spies and Room. At least when it comes to the script and its characters.

And I refuse to believe that there is anyone - anyone - who has seen both The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road and can rationally argue that The Revenant is a better film. Fury Road is a masterpiece that people are watching over and over again. (Shouldn't that be the mark of a Best Picture film - one which is watchable time and time again?)

A basic betrayal-and-revenge story

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and co-writer Mark L Smith (Vacancy) based the screenplay on Michael Punke's The Revenant, a novel inspired by the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Glass, a hired guide helping a large band of fur trappers navigate the wilds of the Americas in the early 1800s.

After a false calm, The Revenant's proper opening scene is a show-stopping massacre at the fur-trapper's campsite when the company is brutally attacked by haunting party of Arikara Native Americans.

The next major set piece - the film's trigger incident (at least script-wise) - depicts Glass's near-demise at the paws of a wild bear that takes him for a threat to her cubs.

The attack lasts for what feels like an eternity, with Glass's screams matching the protective bear's growls beat for beat. (The scene is one of horrifyingly primal violence during which I clenched my hands so hard, wishing I could look away without really managing to).

Two men are then detailed and promised extra pay to look after him: young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald, played by a mumbling Tom Hardy. They're supposed to help Glass's son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) to help give his father a proper burial if and when the legendary frontiersman died.

However, fear of the Arikara pushes Fitzgerald to betray his oath and abandon Glass half-buried in the frozen ground.

But Glass doesn't die - on the contrary, he claws his way out of the grave, and sets to dragging himself - wounds and all - through all the savage terrain of the frontier, with the murderous Arikara still hunting him, back to the outpost where he can find Fitzgerald, and show him what it truly takes to bury a dead man.

Gruelling to watch, gruelling to make

the revenant film review embed 1

A still from the first bloodbath

For DiCaprio, it's one of the most brutally exhausting performances of all time. He's tossed around like a rag doll, he drags his body across icy terrain and rivers, he sleeps in a horse carcass - hell, in a scene reminiscent of Gollum, he sinks his teeth into a fish he catches straight out of the water.

Directorially, Inarritu relies heavily on ultra-long, complicated takes requiring a great deal of coordination and planning. The early Arikara battle sequence is particularly impressive; it isn't a single shot, but it keeps cuts to a minimum, with the camera rushing to follow one fleeing trapper, then the native who kills him, then the man who kills his killer, and so forth.

Some might argue this is over-the-top filmmaking, that Inarritu and DiCaprio are going big for Oscar's sake, confusing blood and sweat for art and performance. But if neither gets it in their categories, extraordinary Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is 100% poised to make history by winning his third straight Oscar for this film (after Gravity and Birdman), and that honour would be deserved.

For DiCaprio, it's one of the most brutally exhausting performances of all time

The immensity of Glass's journey, both physical and psychological, is perfectly encapsulated at one point as the camera pans above a black dot limping in the snow, surrounded by miles and miles of black and white mountains.

In fact, the film was shot in three different countries (the US, Canada, and Argentina) amid unforgiving weather conditions - to accommodate its director's insistence on using only natural light sources (which Lubezki uses stunningly).

All through, very little time is wasted on talk and the film is at it's best when Inarritu lets Lubezki's images and Ryuichi Sakamoto's eerie score speak for him.

On the performance front, as good as DiCaprio is at tapping directly in to Glass's anger, Tom Hardy is that much better as Fitzgerald. (Of all the characters, Hardy has more to play with in terms of script).

What's truly impressive, however, is that Fitzgerald resembles a type of persona Hardy has played before on screen - arrogant, aggressive, boastful, physically imposing - yet he finds completely fresh ways to portray the man. He's already had a great year with Fury Road and his double-role in Legend, and he doesn't disappoint here at all.

The verdict

The Revenant isn't be for everyone. Many of you will be squeamish in so many parts.

And even though it's technically impressive - filled with breathtaking cinematography and those long-staged shots Inarritu chases - the film is kinda short on dialogue (big on grunts) and pretty thin on characterisation while being unapologetically cruel and startlingly realistic with its violence.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5

More in Catch - Spotlight review: a must see hard-hitting newsroom drama

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: the zom-com is exactly what it sets out to be

How to Be Single review: funny, enjoyable and messy in an all too real way

Aleesha Matharu

Aleesha Matharu @almatharu