“So now, East. What news?”
“Violence and suffering. And West?”
“Dreams and toil.”
This is a bit of dialogue from the first of three westerns I saw released in 2015, Slow West. The other two, Quentin Tarantino’s recently released The Hateful Eight and now Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu’s latest, The Revenant, are almost completely devoid of dreams. Hateful focuses more on the violence of the West, building to a bloody end. The Revenant, based on a true story, explores violence, suffering, and toil in an even earlier, more untamed West than the other two have for a setting. It is a harsh, grey landscape, populated by few people with any scruples.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a frontier guide for a fur trading expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Their party is descended upon by a group of Native American Arikara (the Ree), led by the chief, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), who is searching for his abducted daughter. Only a fraction of the expedition manage to escape by boat, and they are forced to abandon their boat down river and travel by foot to their fort, stashing what they could manage to take of their furs as well. This does not set well with some of the men, in particular John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who blames Glass and his half-Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). A vicious bear attack soon after leaves Glass near death, and when it becomes impossible to carry him any further, Hawk, Fitzgerald, and a young man named Bridger (Will Poulter) agree to stay behind until Glass dies and they can give him a proper burial. A mishap results in Fitzgerald killing Hawk, and he takes off with Bridger, leaving him half-buried in a grave. Glass, fueled by seeing his son killed in front of him, crawls out of the grave and begins crawling toward Fitzgerald.
When I wrote my review for The Hateful Eight, I said that no other film did as good of a job at conveying to the viewer the surrounding environment of the film. The Revenant is at least as effective. The bitter cold of the winter these characters toil in is in practically every shot. And the environment is brought to life by the supremely talented Emmanuel Lubezki, who also worked with Inarritu on Birdman. Lubezki’s two strengths are in capturing great outdoors shots (see: The New World, The Tree of Life) and in executing long, unbroken takes (see: Children of Men, Gravity, Birdman). Here he gets to incorporate both of his strengths, as the frontier setting of this story rivals that of any film made this year. And while there are no unbroken takes as long as the entirety of last year’s Birdman, there are a few that last for at least a few minutes and are thrilling.
Inarritu has crafted a film with a fairly simple, straightforward narrative, but it’s anchored by exquisite scenery and strong central performances. I don’t know if it will do the job for him or not, but this film is perhaps DiCaprio’s best shot at an Best Actor Oscar. It’s a mostly physical role too, with little dialogue. Glass spends a lot of his time crawling on the ground, in extreme pain no less, his body ravaged by the bear attack. That Quaaludes scene in The Wolf of Wall Street really paid off. I don’t know that it is DiCaprio’s best performance, but it is his most raw performance, and I think it’s a down year for Best Actor.
The supporting cast is great. Tom Hardy, giving something of a Ted Levine impression in how talks as Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a man driven by money, easily spooked by the Ree as he was partial scalped in the past, and is rash in his actions. He reminded me of Waingro in Heat, surprisingly, the loose cannon who can’t keep his cool and ends up lashing out at the worst moments. Domhnall Gleeson caps off a great 2015 with a strong performance as the Captain who trusts Glass, his guide, despite the misgivings of Fitzgerald and others and is the one flickering light of authority in this land that is almost beyond lawless. Will Poulter continues to impress as a young actor coming into his own.
The film portrays a lot of brutality in the wild frontier. The scene where Glass is attacked by a bear (misconstrued by the media as a bear rape; it’s a mother protecting her cubs) is harrowing and difficult to watch, even if it is a CGI bear. There is a grittiness to this world. I’ve seen several reviews that called it primeval or primordial, and it is an apt description. It’s a savage, barbaric, and unrelenting place that seems to be fighting back against the attempts of these trappers to tame it and bend it to their will.
There are some interesting ruminations here on the will to live, revenge at as a driving force at play here, and of course race relations between the Native Americans and the white trappers. DiCaprio’s Glass sees visions or has dreams/hallucinations of his deceased wife that almost becomes a mantra in the film about as long as you can breathe, you fight to live and an illustration of looking at the trunk of a tree in the face of the wind versus its branches. The film uses revenge as a propulsive element, and then questions whether it is a worthwhile, sustainable resource. I’m not entirely sure if the conclusion it ends up at is profound or convenient. But the journey is riveting.
Inarritu has followed up his Oscar winning Birdman with another impressive film in The Revenant. It is visually provocative, making you feel the harsh cold environment it is set it. It also features strong performances from everyone involved. The story, while not a detriment, is a notch below the top-notch qualities of the rest of the production. It should garner a fair amount of awards buzz, especially for DiCaprio.
Rating 4 out of 5 stars