In recent years, it feels like survival stories have been the basis of some of the most popular movies to grace our screens. A couple of years ago, we had both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity and now we have The Revenant. And, yes, I feel like 12 Years a Slave fits in this category as the story of a human being who endures the unbearable and through grit, determination and ingenuity finds his way back home.
There is an obvious appeal in these kinds of stories for audiences. We are forced to examine what is possible and to consider how far we would go to survive if faced with a situation where the odds – and the elements – are against us. They make us feel small, make us recognise our own frailty yet, when the protagonist prevails, reminds us that there is always hope and that this most singular of human emotions can be stronger than forces much bigger than us.
The Revenant is the semi-biographical story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper in America in the 1800s who is on an ill-fated expedition. His hunting party is decimated in an attack by Native Americans and he is subsequently torn to shreds – really, literally – in a gruesome bear attack. Incapacitated and barely alive, he becomes a great burden to the group, but his son and others in the hunting party refuse to give up on him. However, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the men in the group, murders Glass’s son and leaves Glass for dead in a shallow grave. In single minded determination, Glass slowly, painfully makes his way out of his grave and across a hostile, frozen landscape to exact his revenge on Fitzgerald.
In this way, the story differs from the other movies I have mentioned, as it is not a story of a man wanting to survive for surviving’s sake, or to see his family again – Glass has none left now – he wants to survive to kill Fitzgerald and that is his sole motivation. My favourite movie critic, Mark Kermode, argued in his review that it was a survival story more than a revenge one, but I have to disagree. It is a movie about a man surviving unbearable conditions, yes, but only in order to revenge his son. Glass even puts words to this in the movie: “He knows how far I’ve come to find him…” He sure hasn’t come that far to put up his boots and rest by the fireplace with a hot toddy and a nice sandwich!
The Revenant is first and foremost a beautiful film. It looks gorgeous even when the screen is splattered with blood. Emmanuel Lubezki is very likely to get his third Oscar in a row for cinematography, which is certainly deserved but also a bit sad if it means once again passing over Deakins’ work, this year in Sicario. But Lubezki does undeniable have a skill for manipulating your emotions with his camera work, fluctuating between making you feel trapped and scared on the one hand and completely in awe of the stunning landscape on the other hand. Early on in the movie, at the beginning of the first attack scene, the camera angle is capturing everything from below and looking out from the hunting party’s point of view, with little indication of where the attack is coming from. It is an almost claustrophobic experience, as you feel disoriented and like you want the camera to pan out and scan, so that you can find your bearings. Exactly how the characters feel. There are too many examples of great cinematography to list here but it’s important to stress how integral to the film it is.
There are also great performances throughout the movie. Much has been made of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar nominated performance, although I would argue that Tom Hardy gives the greater performance. The more I see of Tom Hardy, the more I am in awe of how he works. He has a particular knack for acting in a way that I can only describe as unselfish. His performance is solely about his character and the character’s part in the story, not about grandstanding. And he’s a chameleon; just compare this role to the one he played in Inception. Will Poulter is also fantastic in a role that is a far cry from his role in We Are The Millers. May he go from strength to strength. There are unfortunately few female characters in the film but Melaw Nakehk’o as Powaqa gives us one of my favourite moments in the movie, right at the end (POTENTIAL SPOILERS!) where she gives Glass a look that says a whole lot of things but, mainly, “Yes, you’ve been spared now, you know why, but don’t for one second think that makes you anything. I’m a f***ing princess” It’s a moment that goes some way to restore some balance in a movie that has women mainly as corpses or victims of sexual assault and prostitution.
Despite all these great elements, The Revenant is still not a perfect movie, or even the year’s best movie. The parts of the film where Glass is remembering his deceased wife seem ill-judged, and pander to the old cliché of having a Native American character who does nothing but speak of the wind and the trees in a quasi-profound way. It really takes you out of the grittiness and earthiness of the movie. I’m also not sure that we really feel emotionally involved enough in Glass’ character, rather than just his struggle. Could his character not have been exchanged with any other in the movie and the result would be largely the same?
Finally, it’s too long and because of it seems a tad self-indulgent. There is, in my opinion, a tendency with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films to tip over into indulgence and self-importance. It’s one of the reasons I love Mad Max: Fury Road so; it manages to be hugely entertaining and looks completely over the top, but scratch the surface and it shows real restraint in what it decides to include and exclude.
Overall, The Revenant is a beautiful, often nail-biting, movie worth seeing, preferably in a cinema where you can really drink in the scenery the way it was intended to. But at times it is lacking the structure and focus that it needs to hold up all that luscious cinematography. Let’s see if The Academy agrees in a few weeks time. Until then, let me know what you thought of The Revenant in the comments below!