Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Revenant

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Arthur Redcloud, Grace Dove
Running Time: 156 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's rare that the reputation and mystique of a film so firmly rests on a single scene's reception the way it does in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Oscar-nominated The Revenant. By now, everyone knows the scene, or at least knows of it, regardless of whether they've actually seen the movie. Before the public conversation inexplicably morphed it into an animal-on-human rape punchline, the scene could be viewed for what it is and how it plays out on screen. Bears don't sexually assault humans. They maul them to protect their young. And it's scary as hell. I feel like an idiot even typing that, and while always counting myself as good for a laugh at the expense of serious material, it's a testament to how far the joke went that this actually warrants explanation. 

There's no confusion as to what's happening but it's hard not to wonder if Academy members marking their ballots thought there was and unfortunately decided against honoring a film that was turned into a national joke by the media. It's likely few have ever seen a grizzly attack before, onscreen or otherwise. And whatever idea we had of one in our minds certainly wouldn't match the close approximation of reality that occurs in the film.

The details of the scene is one of the many surprises that makes The Revenant special, and the inciting incident that starts Leonardo DiCaprio on the path to giving a performance that's easily the most physical, yet verbally sparse, of his career. Bu the most surprising thing about it is that his character somehow survives it, only to face further  insurmountable odds that test his will to live, and perhaps eventually, extract revenge. It's a man vs. nature survival story and historical adventure epic all wrapped into one, and despite my minor issues with how it culminates, there's little fault to be found.

It's 1823 when the Arikara Native American tribe launch a surprise attack on a crew of American trappers hunting for pelts in the Northern Plains. After what ends up being a particularly brutal battle with many casualties, the surviving trappers escape on a boat lead by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and their guide, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio). When the latter suggests they abandon the boat to travel on foot, it raises the ire of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a mealy-mouthed bully who not only directs his outrage at Glass, but also his mixed race son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Tensions further escalate after a savage grizzly bear attack leaves Glass maimed and unable to continue the journey, prompting Fitzgerald to suggest they kill him so they can all promptly move along.

What happens next is a catastrophic series of events that leave Glass, crippled and clinging to life, alone in the wilderness, fighting the elements as the Arikara tribe continuing to trail the Americans they believe abducted the Chief's daughter. But Glass has only thing on his mind: Revenge. He needs to survive, if only to get his hands on Fitzgerald, who committed the ultimate crime against his family, and one he'll pay dearly for if Glass can live long enough to catch up to him.

Partially based on Michael Punke's novel of the same name, the opening half hour of The Revenant isn't entirely dissimilar to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, before settling into a rhythm and tone more closely resembling Dances with Wolves. It's an odd comparison to make but one the picture earns by starting with a shockingly brutal battle that doesn't hold back in either gore or psychological implications for the men involved. There's very little dialogue both before and after the trappers escape to the boat, and whatever talk there is, serves to briefly establish their personalities and formulate a travel plan. Fitzgerald, who was scalped by natives years ago, harbors almost unrelenting resentment toward Glass and his son from the get-go, establishing himself as an arrogant jerk with little regard for anyone else. And of course, Hardy, playing the baddie with an unintelligible redneck drawl, is just perfect at eliciting this extreme hatred and disgust.

What we do know of Glass comes in brief, almost Malickian flashbacks to his life with his late wife and then infant son. But most of what's revealed about the frontiersman comes following the horrifying grizzly attack (partially accomplished with some really impressive CGI) that eventually separates him from his party, fighting for survival. And it's here where the film hits its stride, as Glass must withstand sub-zero temperatures, life-threatening injury, wild animals and angry natives to eventually arrive at his showdown with Fitzgerald. For most of this, the character is incapacitated in some way and can barely talk.

While it's completely true that good acting involves much more than just performing under brutal conditions, what makes DiCaprio's work so remarkable is how little he must rely on dialogue, instead transcribing every thought, feeling and emotion through sheer physical distress. Despite the minimal speaking, it's nonetheless an engrossing journey thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki's Oscar-winning cinematography and sound, costume and production design that fully brings to life the 1800's in the Dakotas.

Those looking for a revenge-oriented ending out of The Revenant will probably be disappointed, and if it's plot seems as thin as the paper its screenplay (by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith) was written on, that hardly matters. The film seems to be building to this epic confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald, and while I'm being coy in revealing details, the route the film takes to arrive at that conclusion will undoubtedly frustrate those weened on more dramatic finishes. Then again, it might be advantageous to ask whether this story really was about vengeance to begin with.

With themes drenched in familial loyalty, spirituality and a bond with nature, this was always a mood piece that wouldn't ever be mistaken for something like The Hateful Eight. But it still is, in very different way, a full blown assault on the senses, technically towering above most films released in the past year in terms of visuals and sound. Iñárritu makes good on fully immersing us in this unfamiliar world. It's DiCaprio's performance that takes care of the rest.

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