|'A visceral tale of survival, one that invites a grandiose cinematic adaptation for which Iñárritu's intense and uncompromising style feels tailor-made'.|
Based on the defining episode in the life of historical frontiersman Hugh Glass, during which he survived a gruelling solo odyssey despite life-threatening injury after being left for dead by his fellow hunters, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu is clearly aware that The Revenant's stranger-than-fiction subject matter sets him in good stead before he's shot a single frame. This is a visceral tale of survival, one that invites a grandiose cinematic adaptation for which Iñárritu's intense and uncompromising style feels tailor-made.
As a cinematic spectacle, The Revenant is virtually untouchable. The opening sequence - juxtaposing the tense, near-silent tracking of an elk by Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) with the sudden ambush of the rest of the fur trapping party by a Native American tribe - is flawlessly shot by Iñárritu and master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in beautiful, brutal, arresting fashion. Whilst escalating both the tension and the violence, director and cinematographer construct the 19th Century equivalent of Saving Private Ryan's iconic depiction of the Normandy landings, creating an opening fifteen minutes that deserves to stand alongside the finest depictions of conflict ever seen on screen.
From this compelling prelude, Iñárritu punctuates The Revenant with a salvo of raw, relentless cinema to vividly bring to life the barbaric ordeal experienced by his central figure. Much has been made of the scene showing Glass' savage mauling by a bear that sets in motion much of the narrative, and for good reason: Iñárritu refuses to hold anything back, putting on screen with incredible authenticity both the ferocity of nature and Glass' tenacity, resourcefulness and instinct to survive. DiCaprio's performance in the lead role has earned him his latest Oscar nomination for Best Actor, a feat made all the more impressive through the fact that he barely speaks throughout the film's lengthy middle act. It's not hard to see why DiCaprio's portrayal of Glass has received such recognition, delivering a performance both consummate and committed throughout.
In support, it's Tom Hardy as the ruthless and materialistic John Fitzgerald who has received the most acclaim - as well as a Best Supporting Actor nod from the Academy, which perhaps feels less justified than DiCaprio's. It's not that Hardy's turn is weak (which it most certainly isn't), just that his unhinged frontiersman with a thick, at times unintelligible drawl rarely feels as though it shows us anything the actor hasn't done before. The strong performances from Domhnall Gleeson - rounding off a spectacular year that will surely be the permanent making of the actor - and impressive young talent Will Poulter feel just as deserving of praise.
Despite its inherently cinematic qualities, The Revenant's narrative also ends up being the source of the film's biggest problems. Whilst the opening and closing acts are well balanced, the film's prolonged middle section does at times feel excessively weighty. A secondary narrative assigned to a group of Native Americans and focused on the chief's kidnapped daughter feels thinly drawn and ultimately a lot weaker than everything surrounding it. In terms of characters, even taking into account that the film's context undoubtedly falls within a male-dominated period of history, it would have been nice nonetheless to see at least one female role developed beyond the basics. Considering these relatively conspicuous shortfalls, it's arguable that The Revenant sees Iñárritu do little to innovate the period Western genre. Perhaps the director's greatest achievement is creating a film so purely engrossing and cinematically resplendent in spite of this.