Alejandro G. Iñárritu follows up his ambitious Best Picture winner Birdman with a film that makes his previous seem like something he half-assedly cranked out over a weekend. The Revenant is a staggering, jaw-dropping work of cinematic alchemy, topped by an outstanding performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, good enough that, yes, he just might win the Oscar this time.
In 1823, frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is mauled by a bear and left for dead by a member of his outfit, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who subsequently murders Glass’ son before his very eyes. As Glass slowly recovers, he sets out on an epic journey to hunt Fitzgerald down and mete out revenge.
Uncompromising. That feels like the most apt word to describe Iñárritu’s achievement here, a searing rendition of Michael Punke’s 2002 novel that dares the viewer to hunker down into the trenches with DiCaprio for the long haul, and the rewards for patient viewers are well worth sticking out the 156-minute run-time.
Though The Revenant is in no rush to tell its fairly simple tale, there’s rarely moment where it’s not completely captivating; DiCaprio is his usual enormously watchable self, and as the performance continually defies the expected (Leo doesn’t talk much and most of it is in a native American language), he only becomes more so.
DiCaprio has never had to run the physical gauntlet this intensely, with Iñárritu’s brutal use of long takes only making the experience that much more arduous for him and compelling for the viewer.
Leo’s not alone, though; Hardy is excellent as the “villain” of the piece, while there are also memorable roles for Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter as other members in the group. Even so, DiCaprio’s most compelling co-star is arguably the bleak scenery, shot with astounding skill by DP Emmanuel Lubezki, who will likely earn his third consecutive Oscar win for his work. The long takes and sheer abundance of improbable, seemingly impossible shot set-ups adds immensely to the experience, emphasising the grueling nature of Glass’ journey and the oppressive beauty of the surroundings.
The pic stumbles slightly when it enters the symbolic spectrum, and most of these images, though gorgeous, may open the film up to accusations of pretentiousness which aren’t completely unfounded. Still, they’re not too forced and don’t drag things down much or for long, because no matter what he’s faced with on screen, DiCaprio is a compelling force of nature and tough to turn away from.
A fantastically-crafted film in every regard, The Revenant combines some of the year’s most evocative imagery with brutal violence and astonishing performances for a film quite like no other. It may be too slow and full of quiet for some, but for those prepared to follow Iñárritu down the barmy rabbit hole, it’s an unforgettable experience, and one of 2015’s best.
The Revenant is in US cinemas December 25th (limited) and UK cinemas January 15th