Film Review: The Revenant (20th Century Fox; 2016)

Source: Kimberly French
Source: Kimberly French

Seamus O’Kane, Contributor

The Revenant is an American frontier drama by Alejandro G Iñárritu, director of the critically acclaimed hit, Birdman. It has been touted as the film that could finally give Leonardo DiCaprio the Academy Award for Best Actor which has so far eluded him. Iñárritu’s film is a tale of survival and revenge, following Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) in his struggle of endurance against the hostile wilderness and its inhabitants.

The tale takes place amidst the backdrop of conflict between explorers and Native Americans, the opening battle scene capturing the hostility, chaos and confusion experienced on both sides. DiCaprio’s character is in many ways an outsider to this cultural clash, coming into contact with the two communities. Initially presented as the barbaric enemy who scalp their victims, the Native Americans grow more sympathetic as the film progresses through incidences of exploitation and humanity.

Perhaps the film’s centrepiece is the scene where Glass is mauled by a bear. This consists of several minutes of intense intimacy in which the audience is forced to watch Leonardo DiCaprio’s suffering. Although a brutal scene, its impact is slightly offset by the CGI bear which is off-putting in appearing almost real but not entirely convincing. The attack leaves Glass heavily wounded, close to death, and, significantly, it limits his ability to speak. Consequentially DiCaprio’s performance largely consists of silence, his acting based on what can be conveyed without speech.

Glass is abandoned by his fellow pioneers and therefore the majority of DiCaprio’s scenes take place in isolation.  An absence of distractions mean that his suffering is foregrounded, and one cannot help but empathise with the protagonist’s gruelling experience. One issue that the character’s solitude creates is a movie that is largely uneventful with most of the action occurring within the first and last twenty minutes of the narrative. DiCaprio is convincing as a man of great endurance but the nature of the role offers little in terms of range.

Tom Hardy gives an excellent performance as John Fitzgerald, the despicable villain of the piece. Partially scalped and wholly ominous, he is critical of Glass from the start and easily manipulates Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) into following his immoral commands. Like Glass, he is driven to survive, however, he possesses none of Glass’s humanity. Domnhall Gleeson, who now has a burgeoning portfolio since Frank and The Force Awakens, plays the more compassionate Andrew Henry, organiser of the expedition and a stalwart of civilisation as it deteriorates around him.

Source: AP/20th Century Fox
Source: AP/20th Century Fox

Brief dream sequences provide a picture of Glass’s background and the wife he lost. These sequences can be quite bizarre and somewhat self-indulgent but add an extra layer of visual prestige to the movie. Acting aside, the chief merits of the film lie in its cinematography and visuals. The scenery is spellbinding, encompassing snowy slopes and shining skies, all the more impressive considering that the director insisted the film be shot by only natural light. This authenticity pervades the film which was infamously difficult to shoot, the film demanding DiCaprio to climb mountains and endure freezing weather, all while burdened by a real bear pelt.

However, a focus on visuals gives a surface picture which detracts from any emotional experience. Glass is primarily characterised through his suffering and therefore the film as a whole is devoid of any real emotional core. While it seems likely that The Revenant will gain Leonardo DiCaprio his first Academy Award, it is far from his best role.

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