US (2015) Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu
After scooping the Best Picture Oscar in 2015 for Birdman Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow-up is this adaptation of the novel by Michael Punke, which in turn is based on the true story of trapper Hugh Glass, a film which has been in the works for over a decade.
Set in 1823, a group of trappers hunting for pelts in northern Louisiana Purchase (known today as Dakota) are attacked by Arikara Native Americans, leaving just a handful of survivors. Under the advisement of the group’s most experienced member Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), the trappers set off on foot to return to their base camp. While scouting the area Glass is attacked by an angry female bear whose cubs he startled.
The rest of the trappers save him but find it hard to navigate the route carrying Glass on a stretcher, so group captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) leaves Glass behind with three trappers looking after him – Glass’s half-Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). However Fitzgerald, with a grudge against Indians, kills Hawk then convinces Bridger that Glass is dead and leaves the body behind.
On the visual front this film has no peer and it boasts very strong performances from its dedicated cast but at over two and half hours long the story is relentlessly bleak to sustain that runtime which may work against it for some at the Academy. But let’s not write off its Oscar chances just yet – Birdman was an unconventional film so anything can happen.
Essentially a Western revenge tale, the bulk of the film focuses on Glass’s incredible survival against the odds, battling both man and nature over a treacherous 200-mile trip to return to camp and avenge his son. Iñárritu put DiCaprio, and indeed many of the cast, through the wringer and then some in his quest to portray the harsh realities of the suffering endured by all, leading to filming delays and cast and staff departures.
The most comparable film with deeply immersive qualities in terms of taking the viewer deep into the onscreen world would be Hard To Be A God; Iñárritu delivers what can only be described as a near virtual reality experience. Via Emmanuel Lubezki’s astounding cinematography we feel the harsh chill of the winter air, the crunch of every footstep in the snow, the dampness of the rain filled sky and the mud beneath our fingernails.
Crystal clear shots of icy running water are both inviting and fearful and the utterly vicious bear attack is a masterful collaboration between CGI animation and human performance. Iñárritu reportedly wanted this to be a completely natural experience thus everything was shot in natural light and on location with no green screen work and no CG enhancement to the photography.
One technique brought over from Birdman is the continuous take although this time it doesn’t apply to the entire film. The bear attack and the opening ambush on the trapper camp are both presented in this way and even if they weren’t done in a single take, the editing is so tight that one never notices. A demonstration of this is how the camera will follow someone if they fall underwater then return to the surface continuously – no cutaways here.
Glass suffered many vicissitudes during this fraught period, both physically and mentally, and while dramatised for the screen, his survival is miraculous. His throat was severely slashed by the bear, his leg was broken, his fingers numbed with frostbite and his body weakened by food and water deprivation. Yet he managed to crawl through the forests to the waters, survived a night in the cold by hiding inside the carcass of a horse and eating off the land.
But he is not alone in wanting revenge as the Arikara are seeking one of their squaw Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) who was kidnapped by French trappers hence their attack on Glass’s camp (presumably all Caucasians look the same to them). While Glass’s vengeance is driven by pure emotion, for the Arikara it is a matter of pride. Meanwhile Fitzgerald hates Indians since he was scalped by one and took this resentment out on Hawk and Glass.
Thus we have a story which explores not just the bravery and resourcefulness of one man but the unpleasant side of humankind and the primal manner in which we respond to such impositions made against us. The script avoids any political rhetoric regarding the Native American plight against the white man’s usurping their land but the subtext is readily apparent.
At the time of writing this review, the big buzz surrounding this film, aside from Iñárritu possibly doing the double, is the first Best Actor Oscar win for Leonardo DiCaprio. I must confess to not being a fan of his but I have to concede he is superb here and definitely suffers for his art. An Oscar is certainly possible and deserved, but if I’m being honest I found Tom Hardy’s performance stronger and Fitzgerald a more engaging character.
Briton Hardy adopts a flawless US accent and plays the character with ferocious aplomb, while fellow Brit Will Poulter is equally impressive, coming a long way since Son Of Rambo. Domhnall Gleeson delivers solid support as James Henry and a nod goes to the decision to cast Native Americans to play the Arikara, many of whom aren’t professional actors.
The Revenant is a remarkable tale which translates into an enthralling, evocative yet visceral viewing experience, albeit a needlessly protracted one. There is just cause for at least thirty minutes to be excised from the runtime and nothing would be lost. Even then, the Oscar nods are again warranted and this is a strong contender in all categories without question.
If your tastes are for powerful and immersive cinema this film ticks all the boxes and cements Iñárritu’s status as a visionary filmmaker for this generation.