Under the direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), Leonardo DiCaprio is finally no longer the boy wonder of Hollywood, an actor desperate to shed his boyishly good looks and charm but seemingly forever destined to most shine in roles like that of The Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort, a demanding role yet a role that actually benefits from DiCaprio's youthful enthusiasm and good looks.
As Hugh Glass, DiCaprio is different than we've ever seen him and it may very well be his most convincing, if not his most appealing, performance to date. Glass is the guide for a team of trappers who are ambushed by Indians in the West of the 1820's, a time long before justice prevailed and long before diversity demanded the use of Native Americans rather than Indians. It is apparent even early in the film that Glass is a damaged man, formerly happily married to a Native woman left alone now with their son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a half-breed who doesn't really belong anywhere and knows it. With the team on the run after the attack by a tribe of Arikara Indians, tensions are high and Hawk's presence is increasingly unwelcome. When a brutal and beautifully realized bear attack leaves Glass near death, the trappers are caught between their ethical oath to care for one another and the fight for mere survival.
Much has been made publicly of the hardships the cast and crew of The Revenant endured in the making of the film, though it is to both the benefit and detriment of the film that said hardships are evident in virtually every frame of the brutal and beautiful and mesmerizing and downright exhausting film. DiCaprio's Glass will eventually be left for dead, the victim of a self-preserving former confidante named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) for whom survival demands abandonment of loyalty and anything resembling a conscience.
Of course, there's a difference between "left for dead" and "dead" and before long Glass will himself ever so slowly toward something resembling survival with an eye toward retribution against those who've wronged him and left him for dead.
Despite Iñárritu's ongoing love affair with gimmicky lensing and realism that is so realistic that it becomes faux realism, The Revenant soars on the strength of DiCaprio's authentic to the point of exhaustion performance as Glass. In virtually every frame of the film, DiCaprio's boyish charm is nowhere to be found in The Revenant masked by skin aged by a hard life and the even harder elements. DiCaprio has always been willing as an actor to extend himself, though I've seldom bought into his most extreme attempts to do so. It took only a few minutes of The Revenant, however, for me to fully surrender.
As Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy again manages to completely immerse himself in a character that we completely lose Tom Hardy. Heck, was Tom Hardy even in this film? Who knows? It felt like Fitzgerald all the way as Hardy's Fitzgerald, a racist man prone to impulsivity, is somehow both fully human yet one of the year's most vile cinematic characters. As Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson fares better than he did in the year's biggest film, Star Wars; The Force Awakens, while Will Poulter (Son of Rambow) adds emotional depth to the film as a rather green trapper whose conscience hasn't yet been worn away by time and torture.
The Revenant doesn't really add up to much, though it's impossible not to believe that such is really Iñárritu's point. There's a pointlessness to this life and to this violence and to everything that unfolds, yet surviving this pointlessness is really the point of it all. Loosely adapting a 2002 novel by Michael Punke, Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith have crafted a film that is more experiential than thought-provoking and immersive without being intimate.
The bear sequence, which has perhaps received more publicity than the film itself, is a harrowing piece of filmmaking regardless of what you know or don't know about the actual making of the scene. It is to DiCaprio's credit that we are rendered breathless during the scene, perhaps even momentarily alarmed at its relentlessness.
The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner is eerie and haunting, while Emmanuel Lubezki's lensing is bathed in earth tones that toss themselves at the lens, sometimes quite literally, and immerse you in their tapestry.
The Revenant isn't a perfect film and, for the most part, the areas where it fall short are squarely on the shoulders of Iñárritu, a talented filmmaker who has the unfortunate curse of being a little too fond of his own filmmaking. There are moments, fortunately fewer than in the vastly overrated Birdman, when Iñárritu seems to intentionally toss something out there that feels disconnected from everything else and feels more about "See what I can do?" rather than enhancing this compelling survival story. Fortunately, again, these moments are fewer and farther between in The Revenant and DiCaprio has all of us wondering if after four Academy Award nominations, and a fifth one is nearly guaranteed here, he may finally pick up the golden statuette.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic