By Vasika Udurawane
It's probably time to talk about Leonardo DiCaprio and his fantastic Oscar win. We were all waiting for it, and all he had to do was crawl through the snow, wear furs, grow a beard and eat a raw bison liver to make it happen. Not a bad feat, when you consider that acting is indeed a gruesome and grueling business. Hollywood glamor and a massive salary probably come into play much later for the poor souls who have to suffer for the arts. Reading about the man's trials makes me wonder if he's even human at this point. After all, how could you even begin to comprehend what he,
Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and everyone else involved had to go through while making this movie? It is a tale of revenge, set against the bleak landscape of the former Louisiana Purchase. When I first sat down for this one I had no idea how haunting Native American chanting could be. And there it was, spoken against images of snowy landscapes full of slow movement like something out of a dream. This is not the kind of movie that is in any way memorable, at least not in the traditional sense. No, this one does not worm itself into you or slowly embrace you in its beauty. Rather The Revenant mauls and claws its way into your brain like a bear reducing poor, scraggy yet incredibly blue-eyedDiCaprio to bloody human-sized steaks.
The blond acting powerhouse seems to be following me around. From the romantic heartthrobs of Titanic to Catch Me if you Can to the downright savagery of Blood Diamond and the visual albeit artificial-looking spectacle of The Great Gatsby, he cannot catch a break. And here we have him at his most bestial and visceral, a performance that seems to stem from the man's darkest side. His turn in Blood Diamond was about as mean and straight-out vicious as everything else in the film. It was not a standout performance to me, even though I enjoy the movie and have watched it many times. That character came off as just plain nasty. His latest performance though, chilled my bones like never before. He was almost unrecognizable as Hugh Glass. This bearded, pale-skinned, fur-wearing fellow was once the dreamy artist we all fell for in 1997.
Now, I heard all about this supposedly incredible film and of course my expectations were heightened by seeing Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's name on the poster. This is probably today's master of grittiness and darkness. It isn't just dark for the sake of being dark. No, I am quite convinced that there the seeds of insanity have been planted in his mind. Reading about its production history makes you wonder if Inarritu will reach almost Kubrick-like levels of madness through what he does. And talks about filming in real locations in temperatures below zero were making this seem like more of a possibility. There is no green screen here, with everything shot under natural lighting. The cinematography grabs you right from the opening and sets the tone for the whole film. It is clouded in a perpetual greyness, the kind that can only come if Death were wielding the camera. And for the first half hour, I had considered this a possibility. The camera angles and the constant motion during action scenes made me feel like something was stalking us. And why should it not be Death? After all, the whole atmosphere is juxtaposition between dreary late autumn-early winter and intense no-holds barred action sequences.
Every character in the film, whether mains or extras, feel as if they are all at the brink and that each moment could be their last. Good art often makes you think and feel, sometimes in ways that you never thought was possible. There are those that try to speak some deep philosophical lesson and those who try to and fail. Then there are the storytellers who cast all values and morals to the wind while weaving their yarn. Inarritu knew that this was not to be about anything more than one man's race to survive and that was what we got.
This was the most brutal piece of film I had seen in a long time. I still recall that chill snaking down my spine and through my extremities during a number of scenes. Whether it was a battle against Native American warriors or a mere display of the harsh landscape, it had me on edge from the beginning. And yes, we must talk about that scene, the scene which gave birth to many memes and put a fear of hiking in the hearts of many. The shifting camera work of this first half hour felt like buildup to that one scene, the deadly duel between DiCaprio's Hugh Glass and an enraged mother grizzly. This is one of the most terrifying computer-generated creations ever put to film. At every minute, you feel the jaws and claws of this digital 500-pound predator clamp down on you and rake across your body. You hear of bear attacks in the news: Some poor sap managed to anger one of them on a hike and paid the price for his adventurous spirit. Seeing it from the victim's perspective however, is a whole new experience. A bit of reading told me that the bear was performed in motion capture first before the CGI was added, and for this I praise the director. We feel the weight and speed of the animal until its final demise at the hands of Glass. The bear is not a mere computer-generate puppet.
Additional praise goes to the director for cranking out an intense drama out of a little-known western legend. For those who do not know, frontiersman and hunter Hugh Glass was really abandoned in a shallow grave by his hunting party after a bear attack. Sounds simple enough. The aftermath of the legend has Glass traveling across a wintry wilderness to seek his revenge. As far as the lore goes, we have no idea whether this was reality or just a tall tale. Chances are that it could be both. Inarritu, with his characteristically dark vision, goes in a few layers deeper. To hear a story is one thing but to see it is a completely different experience. This is a survival story, like I mentioned before. Seeing previews and trailers made me think that this would be another one like Into the Wild, currently one of my personal favorites. A few watches convinced me though that this was the complete antithesis. While Into the Wild makes us feel good when shows of kindness are involved and makes the viewer enjoy the journey, there is nothing even remotely enjoyable about the atmosphere in The Revenant. We see this hurt in everyone's face and in all their mannerisms. It evokes sympathy from the viewer, and creates fleshed-out characters out of them.
There is yet another acting giant in this movie in the form of the harsh-voiced Tom Hardy. Now I am not a huge fan of him as an actor but I have to give him some credit in this role.
The film provides his motivations from the beginning, and his rivalry with DiCaprio's Glass is not hidden. Rather, I would say that I would hate to have him as a 'rival' since he is so open with his motives. But he succeeded in his plans, for the most part at least. His turn as John Fitzgerald is rough, hateful and brash. At the same time this vile murderer who left his partner to die in the wilderness feels the weight of the cold in his bones. I noticed that Hardy's eyes were almost always wide open, the look of a man who had experienced horrors beyond anyone else's comprehension. Still his performance makes one connect with him and identify with him on his journey. The viewer sees that not even the man who abandoned Glass to his fate is free from suffering. Fitzgerald's pain comes through just as effectively as that of the protagonist. We feel his history in everything he does as he pusheshimself to survive the winter and make it out alive.
Everyone is united by the hardship they have to face, from the frontiersmen to the Native American tribes in the film. I'm not going so far as to suggest that nature alonebrings us together as one. It is the will to live that does. Whatever displays of human kindness and camaraderie we see are brief and still set against that cloudy greyness of winter. The film seems to shy away from this altogether at times, creating a truly inhospitable environment for our protagonist. He is isolated from his companions in this icy desert. That is except from the second half of the film where Glass has to travel with a wandering Pawnee, himself a lost soul in the wilderness. In terms of pacing, I had no problems with this movie although I see how others may not like it.
The minute that the protagonist is out of his grave, the movie takes on this slower pace. At first it felt somewhat at odds with the first half of the film's first act. I have heard of friends of friends falling asleep during these sequences and although I might not go so far, I still quite understand their predicament. However there is a plus side to such slowness cast against such grand backgrounds as what we see here. Many scenes between the protagonist and his unlikely companion are silent and reserved enough for the viewer to simply grasp the size of the film. These are background shots straight out of the pages of a National Geographic magazine. However the quick pace is once again repeated at the end of the third act, where Hardy and DiCaprio have their last-minute showdown.
I don't think I've ever really seen action quite like this. You feel like you are at the core of it and once again Death's camera work,and that thumping score,add to the tension. This is not a movie for the faint-hearted. Between shots of a bloody bear attack, sleeping in a horse carcass, snacking on a raw bison liver and an ear being bitten off, this movie is not for those who may fall sick at the sight of blood. Whether lovers of traditional action fare might enjoy it, I certainly don't know. But I do know that fans of the historical genre might find something to be marveled at.
We do not always hear the Hugh Glass legend and this movie owns the lore. It takes a spin on it that is quite unlike any other adaptation ever by making it ten times grittier and darker, and far more thrilling. It also manages to stand out as its own product, simply because of its intensity, power and breathtaking rawness. The world of this film is resplendent in its savagery, from the tiniest falling leaf to half-frozen waterfalls to majestic mountain vistas and forests knee-deep in snow. Other survival flicks give us a beautifully sunlit view of a forest or mountainside, while one man or a few men stand as the conquerors of the wild. Here we have no such luck, with man melting into the savage side of nature through his devolution. Of course the action is never far behind and when this comes along, it does not disappoint. There is not much more that can be said about the film as a whole. It is not a pretentious art film and it does not try to be anything more than what it is. The Revenant is a gritty and uncomfortably realistic survival piece with raw performances straight from the deep guts of the actors. Watch it now to see what I mean.