Image via 20th Century Fox
Director: Alejandro G Iñárritu
Screenwriters: Alejandro G Iñárritu, Mark L Smith
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson
The Revenant is set in 1823 and unfolds across an idyllic, but rugged rocky mountain landscape. It says something about the film in that it manages to present a story and setting that would strike even the most casual of movie fans as familiar, while still packing it with detail that makes for a visceral viewing experience.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a tracker of high regard that escorts a party of furriers and their haul across the sub-alpine landscape. Complications ensue, and a injured Glass is left for dead. The Revenant primarily focuses on Glass’ redemptive journey back to base (becoming the ‘revenant’ of the title), driven by instinct, revenge and serendipity. While the snow would suggest otherwise, the film comfortably positions itself as a classic Western that sets out to celebrate, rather than reinvent the associated tropes.
Image via 20th Century Fox
This isn’t to say that the film is short on innovation – the camerawork is used to play up the idiosyncrasies of the film’s setting to full effect. Tightly angled panning shots exaggerate the scale of terrain, but are also used to create moments of enclosure outdoors. The forest and mountaintop shots that pepper the film (and are so rarely seen in the flat prairies of the genre) have a nice stillness about them – hair flutters and leaves move in gently GIF-like motions. The tension of campfire meetings is presented the same way – there’s an uneasiness about them as the eye follows the pan from one background detail to another, subsequently building towards a particularly gratifying bloodbath.
*THE* bloodbath, of course, is the infamous bear scene which occurs surprisingly early in the film. DiCaprio’s wordless performance sets the tone for the rest of the film, and is complimented nicely by screen filing face shots and dextrous camera work. It arguably appeared a little too coordinated, making the bear itself look rather fake. The ending of this scene provides an enduring image of Glass staring up into the forest before seamlessly transitioning into a panning shot. The audience is transported into the eyes of the character, presenting the existential challenge of the ‘frontier’ experience from a uniquely first person perspective. Challenge-then-contemplation is repeated as a sequence of set pieces throughout the film, and each situation is presented creatively and compellingly.
Unfortunately aside from the view, not much else is revealed from the characters’ perspectives other than what can be determined immediately from the beginning. Although this may be an inherent fault in the novel on which the film is based, the fact that none of the characters emerge from the brutal landscape even slightly changed by their experiences is jarring. The straightforward father-son relationship between Glass and his son is established from the first scene, and this dynamic drives the film. Glass’ desire for revenge is unwavering through to the end, though slightly delayed in order to establish again that he is pure of heart and unqualifyingly good. Tom Hardy is almost unrecognisable as primary antagonist Fitzgerald – but he essentially plays a moustache-twirling villain, albeit very well. Fitzgerald seems almost aware of his inevitable demise, and lacks any opportunities to show any other motivations for his questionable actions (which are plenty in an unforgiving fight for survival) than cowardice. The details of the struggles are a fascinating distraction in a Man vs. Wild kind of way, and satisfying enough if you suspend contemplation of why things are happening over watching them unfold.
3 out of 5 stars