Last night, whilst leading a trapping expedition in the uncharted American wilderness circa 1823, I was attacked by a tribe of Arikara – a terrifying ambush that killed over half our party. Then I got mauled by a bear, betrayed and left for dead. Somehow I came to, and dragged myself through miles and miles of hostile terrain amid blizzards, frozen rivers and mountains, constantly under threat from Arikara attack. This truly hellish journey was punctuated by the occasional quasi-mystical vision, and at many points I had to do horrific things in order to survive (including one encounter with a horse that I will spare you the details of). Yet amid the horror of that ordeal, my obsessive quest for revenge on the one who betrayed me spurred me ever onward. All things considered, it was an exhausting (and absolutely freezing) evening.
No, wait a minute… That was the film I went to see, director Alejandro G Iñárritu’s The Revenant. It’s easy to get confused, because this movie gives new meaning to adjectives like “immersive”, “visceral” and “gruelling”. Survival adventure stories do not come any more brutal and gripping than this so yes, here are my usual warnings about very strong levels of (contextually justified) violence and gore, swearing and so on. It also contains my all-time favourite mauling by a savage beast. If possible, I recommend seeing the film as I did, ie with a cold, to really get the shivering levels of out-of-body-experience cinema. The word intense seems pathetically inadequate. And yes, for goodness sake see it on the biggest screen you can find.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Hugh Glass will almost certainly win him an Oscar, and yes I do think he is very good. However, a slightly cynical part of me is aware of the extremely tough shoot, and can’t help but consider how such horrendous sub-zero conditions would hardly have impeded his performance. It’s the kind of turn Oscar loves, giving new meaning to the term “committed”, but I’d rather see the statuette go to someone like Michael Fassbender for his sterling work in the underrated Steve Jobs. Really DiCaprio should have won his Oscar a while back, for The Departed.
DiCaprio is well supported by the likes of Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson and Will Poulter in key roles. Iñárritu’s direction, aided by Emmanuel Lubezki’s jaw-dropping cinematography and Lon Bender’s phenomenal sound design, is 24 carat cinema. The initial ambush alone, which features an extraordinary, pass-the-POV shot, is worthy of the admission price. Yet that is merely an opening salvo for what follows, with image after image that will stay with you for the rest of your life. I think my personal favourite was an incredible crane shot which gradually moves towards DiCaprio trudging across a frozen lake. The sheer loneliness of that bleak landscape haunts me just thinking about it.
To be fair, the film doesn’t really have anything especially profound to say that hasn’t been said before in Werner Herzog movies dealing with man-vs-nature, nor does it offer fresh insights into the subject of vengeance that haven’t been seen in dozens of other revenge movies. But I cannot recall a film where such themes were packaged and presented in such an all consuming way. Yes, you could argue it is too long, but surely that is the point. The Revenant is a bold, brilliant and utterly draining piece of filmmaking.