In a nutshell: The Revenant is extreme, uncompromising, boundary-pushing filmmaking on a massive scale, and for the viewer a harrowing immersion experience.
Australian release date: Thu 7 Jan
The film opens with a long take of a forest in flood. Crystal clear water courses around the trunks of the trees. It’s an extraordinary wilderness scene unlike anything I’ve seen on film or off. Startlingly beautiful, and quite surreal. Then from either side of the screen, the barrel of an early-era rifle announces human intrusion into this unforgiving terrain. Hunters trudge into view, wading against the water flow, armoured from the cold in bulky rough leather and furs, unkempt of appearance, battered and hardened by long exposure to the harsh winter. Silent, eyes peeled. They are stalking deer for their pelts. But indigenous tribes are stalking them.
When battle erupts, it comes out of nowhere. A volley of arrows, all hell breaks loose, and you’re flung into the midst of one of those chaotic battle scenes where you wonder how anyone gets out alive or unmaimed. Arrows skewer necks, thud into chests and pierce skulls, knives flash and slash, the one-shot rifles bark, spilling blood and guts, then are turned end on, the butts rammed into enemy faces. The realism is jaw-dropping, but even more so is the complexity of the choreography and its perfectly captured execution. You cannot help but be aware of these aspects, as gripping as the action is.
The story, based on a true one, is basic. Deer hunter and explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by a bear, abandoned by his men and left for dead. (The bear attack is astonishingly realistic – a feat of animatronics and CGI, I’m guessing, and surely a landmark in cinema that will be talked about for years to come). Alone and gravely injured, Glass faces a near-impossible fight, initially to stay alive and recover, then to trek back to civilisation through the cruel winter of the American mountain wilderness. His ordeal is compounded by grief, his indigenous wife having been murdered, and now his adult son, whom he finds shot dead nearby, the victim of treacherous crew member John Fitzgerald (a very mean-arsed Tom Hardy).
DiCaprio earns his pay in this role, and how (if it’s not a down-payment on an Oscar for Best Actor, there is no justice). He looks worn and feral, and gets pretty primal, at one stage capturing a fish from an Indian trap and tearing into it with his teeth as it wriggles in his hand (and yes, he chews…and swallows). There are no cuts to let him off the hook – the scene is shot in one take in real time. And who knows how many times they did it before director Iñárritu was satisfied with the footage? That aside, DiCaprio couldn’t have performed any better, and neither could anyone else in this role. He’s faultless.
I saw him interviewed on TV a couple of weeks back, and he remarked that the shoot pushed all involved to their physical and psychological limits. The entire movie was shot on location in extreme winter conditions (in Canada, North America and when the winter abated and the snow along with it, Argentina). All the snow is real. And Iñárritu insisted on shooting in natural light during a short window of opportunity late in the afternoons. The rest of the day the actors and crew spent rehearsing the planned scene. Given the complexity of the choreography, the extreme environmental conditions (no comfy luxe hotels to retreat to), the length of the film (150 minutes+) and the director’s insistence on authenticity and realism no matter the cost, there must have been quite an attrition rate. Comparisons with Apocalypse Now are inevitable.
Is this a great film? Well, it has its flaws. Some will find it too long, and I would argue that judicious editing probably could have cut out 30 minutes or so without any significant effect on the final product. But as a reviewer friend observed, that would have spared the viewer some of Glass’s ordeal, which would have been a compromise that went against the grain of the work. We’re supposed to endure the epic fight for survival, along with Glass. Fair call.
For a work that strives for realism, also, there are some surprising logic oversights. For example, Glass is a crack shot, picking off deer and marauding Indians with unerring accuracy – not credible with guns of this vintage. Another example: at the end of the bear attack, the beast rolls, dead, on to Glass. Not only is the bloke not crushed to death, but it takes only two men to haul the carcass off him. How much does an adult grizzly weigh? Least credible of all is Glass’s survival in sub-freezing temperatures, so severely wounded that he is unconscious for days, let alone his subsequent recovery and epic trek through an inhospitable wilderness nightmare.
But these are trifles in the scheme of things. This film is a movie experience unlike any you have had, I promise you that. And you HAVE to see this as intended, in a cinema. However big and beaut your home theatre set-up, it will not do justice to extreme filmmaking on a scale as massive as this. You will not get the full immersive effect. You will not get the greatness of this virtuoso filmmaking achievement. Do not – do not – wait for the DVD!
Movie website: www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-revenant
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