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Review: The Revenant (2015)

The Revenant (2015)

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Premise: Set in the American frontier in the 1820s, a company of fur trappers come under attack from Native Americans. The survivors go on the run and one of them is betrayed and left for dead. He recovers and seeks revenge.

What Works: The Revenant is a movie that has much more to offer and is more complex than it initially appears to be. This film is primarily a tale of survival and revenge and as that it is an extraordinary cinematic experience. The Revenant is as exciting and visceral and as well executed as action pictures like Mad Max: Fury Road and it has some standout set pieces, namely a bear attack that is among the most realistic and most intense animal attack sequences ever filmed. From there the movie is about survival as frontiersman Hugh Glass is betrayed by his companions and left for dead only to literally crawl out of his grave and begin a journey home through the unforgiving wilderness. The movie is both ugly and beautiful with the wilderness landscape wonderfully photographed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki but the action within that landscape is frequently brutal. The Revenant has been made in a very naturalistic style; this movie does not romanticize the west or mankind’s relationship to nature. That realistic approach is also true of the film’s characters. The Revenant retells the tale of Hugh Glass, a legendary figure from American frontier days. However, the way that he’s portrayed in the film is notable. Glass is played by Leonardo DiCaprio and the actor and the filmmakers do not depict Glass as a macho folk hero like Daniel Boone. The Hugh Glass of The Revenant is very skilled and occasionally lucky but he’s also a flesh and blood man whose adventures have left him scarred both literally and figuratively. DiCaprio does some of the best work of his career in The Revenant. In many of his most popular performance the actor has tended to alternate between smooth charm and violent anger but his role in The Revenant is some of his most subtle and tortured work. Also notable are the performances by Tom Hardy and Will Poulter; Hardy is cast as unscrupulous woodsman John Fitzgerald and what could be a stock bad guy is much more complex in Hardy’s hands. Poulter is also impressive as a fellow explorer who unwittingly leaves Hugh Glass alone in the forest. These subtle performances are part of The Revenant’s reinterpretation of the American west and the western film genre; this is not Davy Crocket but it isn’t Dances with Wolves either. If anything, The Revenant most closely recalls Terrence Malick’s The New World but because of its action and its more straightforward filmmaking it is more accessible than Malick’s 2005 picture.

What Doesn’t: The Revenant throws the audience into the action and into a specific historical moment without much exposition. There are quite a few variables at play in this story including multiple Native American tribes, French fur traders, and American military and business interests but there is nothing establishing the way these various groups relate to one another or if there is a bigger context to the action of the film. The naturalistic style of The Revenant is one of its most distinguishing qualities and that precludes the film from engaging in overt scenes of exposition. Anyone with any kind of understanding of the American west ought to be able to figure out what is happening and the story is easy enough to follow. But it is also fair to say that The Revenant deals with a big and sensitive issue in American history—westward expansion—but its commentary on that history is so subtle that a lot of mainstream viewers aren’t likely to see The Revenant as anything beyond an A-to-Z revenge tale. 

Bottom Line: The Revenant delivers popcorn thrills while slipping nuanced characterization and cerebral themes into its story. This is great filmmaking on par with the movies of Sam Peckinpah.

Episode: #578 (January 17, 2016)