This review comes late, but prompted by the fact that it’s the Oscars soon and I had a half-written piece lying dormant within my laptop, I felt compelled to finish it. Because I loved this film. A few minor gripes aside, it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time.
I was ready to hate it, I really was. Word of mouth reviews like ‘I couldn’t wait for it to be over’ and ‘the bear attack goes on for TWENTY MINUTES’ were a bit of a deterrent, but with a large plastic cup full of red wine in hand I readied myself for a gruelling two hours and thirty-six minutes.
From the very first moments it is made clear that this will be an intense experience. A violent attack by the Arikara Native Americans, complete with the sound of arrows whizzing past your ears, has the feel of the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan. From then on in you see just how grim the life of a frontiersman in the early nineteenth century was. If you’re as obsessively curious as I am you might like to supplement your viewing of the film by going home, researching the story behind it, then researching the lives of other pioneers who survived bear maulings and finally reading the entirety of the lengthy Wikipedia page about the doomed Donner Expedition of 1846-47 (don’t even go there. So grim).
If you don’t fancy doing that, these are the basics. The plot is based on the true story of Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper in the Northern Planes who was attacked by a grizzly bear in 1823, left for dead by his mates, and then supposedly crawled over 200 miles to civilisation in Fort Kiowa. In the film Glass is given a Pawnee wife and son, although there is no factual evidence to suggest that they existed. Tom Hardy plays a fellow trapper of somewhat questionable morals and Will Poulter’s performance as the unfortunate youngster who is coerced into leaving Glass to die is spot on.
The plot is undeniably compelling, but what is so good about this film is the way it is shot. There are a lot of extreme close ups, with the result that I feel like I spent two and a half hours inside Leonardo DiCaprio’s nostril, but it wasn’t a bad experience. Contrasted with these tight shots on the human drama are wide, expansive panoramas of a stunning, snowy landscape. How vast America is. Or more accurately, Alberta, Canada is. DiCaprio explains the direction thus: ‘What Alejandro accomplishes is his ability to put you there. This almost virtual reality where you really feel like you’re out in the elements with these characters, you really feel immersed in their lives. You get the visual perspective of… a character in the movie, almost.’
Knowledge of the difficult filming conditions, which have been well publicised, make the end result even more compelling. When you know that Leo (who doesn’t eat meat) ate a raw bison liver in that scene, you know that he nearly vommed for real. When you know that the crew set off an actual avalanche at the top of an 8,000 ft mountain, the tension in that scene is heightened further. It was shot entirely in natural light, meaning that actors had all day to rehearse a scene but limited time to capture it. Iñárritu explained to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘If we ended up [using] green screen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of sh**.’ Blunt, but probably true.
He explained further, in the behind the scenes documentary ‘A World Unseen’, ‘You have to be a little, kind of, crazy to embark on a film like this. The physicality of it, the setting, nature as a transformative experience.’ DiCaprio has said it’s the most challenging film he’s ever made. The suffering paid off. A couple of dodgy CGI wolves aside, the whole film feels real, raw and visceral. That total, muffled silence there is when it snows? I felt that in the screening room. It was like going on an epic walk in an incredible, awe-inspiring and brutal landscape.
Then there’s the bear scene. Hyped up by reports in the media that the film depicted DiCaprio being ‘sexually assaulted by a bear’ (a rumour he was eventually forced to officially deny, calling it ‘absurd’), the moment the grizzly appeared on screen there was deathly silence in the cinema. It’s as accurate and detailed a depiction of what a bear attack must be like as I can imagine, from the sound of bear snout snuffling around Glass’ face to the fogging up of the camera when it exhaled. I had to squeeze my eyes tight shut for a moment. Almost as unbearable (unBEARable? No? OK.) to watch was the final confrontation scene between Glass and Fitzgerald. There were audible gasps from the audience as the combatants were by turns stabbed, throttled and slashed, and immense relief when it was over.
In many ways this could be defined as an ‘action’ film. There is, after all, plenty of action. There is sleeping inside a horse carcass (a bit too reminiscent for me of this scene in the masterpiece that is Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls). There are violent attacks and gruesome deaths. There is that bear scene. And there is probably a bit too much of Leo grunting, groaning, straining and flailing about. It did become ever so slightly overdone after a while. My only other pedantic quibble, which I couldn’t shake from my mind for the duration, was that his hands survived sub-zero temperatures without any gloves. Surely he could have fashioned some nice bear fur mittens? How he didn’t get frostbite throughout the whole ordeal, despite making a big show of how cold his hands were a few times, I’ll never know. Also, there’s a fire right there mate. You don’t need to eat that fish raw.
Pedantry aside, for a film which one would think is full of thrills, forward momentum and savage bear attacks, this story of a gruff frontiersman who crawled his way back to life has more soul than most. Try not to be moved by the scene when Glass walks into a ruined church and drifts into an imaginary plane where he is embracing his son, whose presence he yearns for, only to realise that he has his arms around a tree trunk. Atmospheric flashbacks to Glass’ wife, which are cleverly woven into the story, give an emotional depth to his character and an insight into his inner life. The film also explores the complexity of human relationships, the destructive impact mankind has had on the natural world and the rights indigenous peoples have to their land. What I was so gripped by was the sheer fascination of watching what people who are in extremis will do to survive. Human beings in survival situations will never not be compelling. DiCaprio called it ‘The poetry of what it means to have all the chips stacked against you… and the triumph of the human spirit and what we can endure’.
I could go and sit and just be in the quiet moments of this film for hours on end. It’s achingly beautiful. Like a walk in the countryside, this film forces you to notice the world around you, to be present in it. To feel the pace of the weather changing, like in that magical scene when the camera captures a weather front of snow pass across a copse of silver birches. First, there is the beauty of just looking at the spectacle of it, and then you wonder how on earth they caught it on film because you know none of it was faked, and there wasn’t a snow machine just off-camera. Unless of course there was, in which case I’ll feel seriously duped.
After watching the film, the seventy year old woman who shuffled out of the cinema behind me simply said, ‘Thank God that’s over’. For her, it was an ordeal. I was also a bit shell-shocked, but only because it was so gorgeous, unflinching, thought-provoking, well-acted, well-cast, well-scored, well-shot and totally immersive. I’ll still be amazed by it in fifty years. It’s already a classic.
Surely it must win at the Oscars? It has a whopping twelve nominations. Yes, Leo has been campaigning hard but so what? He deserves to win, and not just because it’s ‘his time’ but because he was great in The Revenant. I have a bet on him, on the film and on Iñárritu. The odds were so stacked in their favour that my tiny stake will only make me enough to cover the cost of half a latte if they win, but if you don’t see me spending my filthy lucre in a Costa next week I’ll eat my hat.
[Edit: *Eats part of hat as The Revenant wins best cinematography, best director and best actor but not best film.*]
[Feature Image credit: Day Donaldson]