After the runaway (and deserved) success of Birdman, director Alejandro Iñarritu is back with yet another Oscar-nominated effort, this time taking on a bigger project following a mad journey of survival and revenge from legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Set in the early 1800's, The Revenant is a grim, bloody, cruel piece of work set in beautiful snowy, frozen backdrops which makes for an interesting contrast. Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight also went for a wintery feel but it's hard to call Iñarritu's film a Western since it really feels like something else entirely.
The first big sequence involves a large group of frontiersmen being overrun by Native American opponents: it's an epic scene in the old sense of the word complete with arrows piercing through people's faces, horses getting sliced-up and bones breaking left and right. It's an extremely detailed battle filmed in such a sweeping, steady way that it all feels like one single shot somehow giving it a dream-like quality. The focal point of the film is, of course, Glass who, while leading a group of men to a camp up a mountain, is mauled by a bear in what has become the movie's main standout sequence. It's an effective scene in that it's extremely violent and therefore memorable but the use of CGI is frankly a little too distracting in what is otherwise a very gritty and raw film.
After this bear-on-man fight, Glass is basically dying: his skin is scratched-up no end, as is his throat, he's lost a lot of blood and his fever is running high. This prompts John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a half-scalped member of his own team, to not only bury him alive but murder his son and leave him for dead in the freezing wilderness. Glass somehow pulls through, however, and we then follow his long, tortuous path as he crawls and walks through the woods and the mountains desperately trying to survive so he can get revenge on Fitzgerald or at least see him pay for what he did. Along the way, he has to avoid a group of Native Americans who are searching for one of their own and are not too big on white guys, understandably, he also has to find warmth wherever possible even if that means using his dead horse like a Tauntaun and climbing into its belly fully naked.
We get to see every uncomfortable, painful moment of this adventure and even though DiCaprio says like 10 words the whole movie since he is reduced to a grunting mess early on, we still feel for him and want him to face off against Hardy's Fitzgerald, whose skewed vision of the world alone makes him a dangerous animal to have around.
Visually, The Revenant is a stunning achievement: the locations, the natural lighting, the attention to detail: every shot is like a painting. Iñarritu is certainly deserving of the praise he's received as this was a long, difficult production which pays off by being an experience that's well worth sticking around for. On the minus side, it's hard to deny that the story could have easily been told in a tighter way as some scenes don't feel entirely too necessary and seem to be there just because they were well written or simply gratuitous. When you boil it down, this is a typical revenge mission plot so the two-hours-and-a-half running time is pushing it, especially since it's all pretty predictable. Still, The Revenant remains a good film with plenty going for it and it should be seen as it's unlikely there'll ever be another Western quite like it.
It's another hit from the ultra-talented Mexican director and it should sweep up at the Oscars (go Leo!). It gets a tad carried away with its own poetry at times and characters act in inconsistent ways here and there but overall it's just one of those movies you see once and it stays with you for a long while. Terrific performances, first class visuals, writing and direction.