Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s (Birdman) fact-based frontier revenge saga The Revenant has an unnerving way of lodging itself in the back of one’s mind for days. Equal parts beautiful and brutal, it’s easily one of the most unsettling films of the past few years. It’s also one of the best.
Its setting is a particularly harsh time and place — the Montana and Dakota territories circa the dead of winter 1823 — and Gonzalez Iñárritu plunges us into the unforgivable nature of said wilderness within the movie’s first few minutes.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the only survivors of a tribe massacred years before, are part of a company of fur trappers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). A band of Native Americans attack in a chaotic and bloody sequence filmed seemingly in a single, long take. Most of the trappers die, and the survivors — which include Glass, Hawk, Captain Henry, cold-blooded John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and a young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) — flee into the woods. Their tempers are short and the options are few.
The situation is complicated when Glass is mauled by a bear in another single-take sequence that is both impressive and nightmare inducing. After carting him around for a while, the group decides that Glass’ time is short and Hawk, Bridger, and Fitzgerald agree to stay with him until he passes, bury him, and catch up. Fitzgerald grows impatient and decides to hasten the man’s passing, resulting in a dead youth and Glass clawing himself out of a shallow grave.
And then things get ugly.
DiCaprio has come within spitting distance of an Academy Award on a few occasions, and The Revenant is his best chance at scoring one to date. Short on dialogue and long on suffering, grief, and privation, he invests himself fully in the role. The production filmed under notoriously harsh conditions, which DiCaprio seems to have embraced. He loses himself in the character completely, and the thousand-yard stare in his eyes in the final shot says far more than any Oscar-bait monologue could.
Between this and Mad Max: Fury Road (and to a lesser extent, Legend), it’s been a good year for Hardy. He occasionally gets lost in Method, and almost goes full Brando as Fitzgerald, but he shows some restraint here, and his hate-fueled and battle-scarred trapper is an intriguing, conflicted survivor. Gleeson is also riding a big wave thanks to an impressive turn in Ex Machina and a supporting role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that will grant him some much-deserved global exposure. Poulter (We’re the Millers, The Maze Runner) shows some impressive range.
Iñárritu and co-scripter Mark L. Smith render the characters with depth and complexity, occasionally flirting with stereotypes just long enough to subvert them.European pioneers and Native Americans alike are rendered in shades of grey, capable of kindness and savagery — though it is mostly the latter that comes into play.
Filming in Canada and Montana and utilizing natural light, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Iñárritu create an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere suggesting a surreal netherworld that exists in permanent twilight. It is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Terrence Malick’s more recent films, albeit without the relative warmth of either. Theirs is a land of grandeur and unforgiving harshness.