Alejandro G Iñárritu is back after his offering Birdman. This time he takes us to the heart of the American wilderness with The Revenant. The film is epic in scale and lusciously shot, with stunning visuals and a delectable score. The film for all of its poetic beauty is essentially about a fight for survival against all physical odds and also about retribution.
Iñárritu brings us what he is known to do best: beating the audience into submission to remain engaged with his work. He did it in Babel and he did it to some success (barring the cultural references) in Birdman. But more than that, The Revenant is another beast all together.
We find ourselves with a pack of these fur traders, led by Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is the only one who knows the way back to the ‘civilized world’ through the treacherous wilderness. This is the 19th century, the brutal winter is turning in and everyone is gasping for some sort of reprieve from the constant fighting with Aboriginal groups, who chase them for theft of fur, murder and pillage of their communities, etc., etc.
The film’s Act 1 highpoint happens early, when Glass is attacked brutally by a bear, and is left pretty much half-dead. His group, led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), decides to haul him with them for a bit, hoping to find a way out of the treacherous environment they are surrounded by. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is the black sheep and is constantly trying to convince the others of Glass’ burden. His rivalry with Glass is old and is touched on earlier in the film, when Fitzgerald confronts Glass for having put everyone in danger by going back to look for a dead Aboriginal woman, who bore him a son. Finally, Henry decides that it is impossible to carry Glass for long and leaves him behind with three volunteers, who must wait for him to die and give him a proper burial. A cash reward at the end of it makes it worthwhile for them.
The main character is the wilderness, which Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki deliciously, obsessively shoot in icy cold waters, snow-laden mountains, paths that spell death at every corner, and of course not to mention the threat of predators along the way.
Fitzgerald obviously betrays Glass and in his attempts of silencing him forever, ends up stabbing Glass’ son to death. He dumps Glass in a pit, covering him with dirt, believing that he is leaving behind a dead man. The real acting brilliance in the film is Tom Hardy, who plays his evil minded, self-centered and brutally selfish character to the hilt.
The rest of the film is Glass in pursuit of Fitzgerald, to avenge the murder of his son. Through this bone-chilling visual feast, Iñárritu makes you want Glass to kill Fitzgerald in the final attempt of getting even. The audience is not disappointed as the final scene does offer the best of a violent end.
But in all this, the shadows that follow these men and the narrative are the various First Nations people, who chase the ‘white man’ for having stolen their daughters and women. They try to trade with a group of French mercenaries for horses, while traversing the wilderness, hoping to find (or not) a pack of white intruders, who look at women as sex slaves and men as ready meat to fight off predators. The caricature-like characterization of all non-whites with monotonic bewilderment on their faces, or in constant search for the primal things (food, shelter and such) were very bothersome in spurts when they appeared.
Barring one little dialogue that refers to the theft and complete annihilation of peoples, their lands, their everything, this tale of barbarism turns into one of heroism and perseverance, of having survived a bear attack and abandonment after having been left for dead. While truly an American story, barring the visual brilliance, I was surely left wanting for more, both from the problematic politics and the handling of the subject matter by Iñárritu.
The film just cleaned up the Golden Globes on Sunday with Best Picture Drama, Actor and Directing honours.
The Revenant is out in cinemas.