Adapted from a novel of the same name, but also based loosely around the American folklore tale, The Revenant is about a group of fur trappers who, after being attacked by a band of Native Americans, are forced to plunge deeper into the wilderness to find a different route back to the nearest settlement.
It isn't long before the group's expert tracker, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by a grizzly bear and has sustained near fatal injuries. Torn between heading back to camp and keeping Glass alive, the group's captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) decides to leave Glass' son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter) in charge of ensuring Glass passes away peacefully and receives a proper burial.
However, the impatient Fitzgerald doesn't feel like sitting around waiting for Glass to die; when Hawk interrupts Fitzgerald attempting to strangle his father, Fitzgerald kills Hawk and buries Glass alive in the snow to die. Miraculously, Glass somehow survives the cold and awakes to vow revenge on the man who killed his son and left him for dead in the wilderness.
It isn't without its flaws, but for the most part The Revenant is everything you'd want it to be. For starters, it looks fucking amazing. Director Alejandro Inarritu (fresh off the back of winning Best Director/Picture for Birdman last year) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki haven't just made a movie, they've painted a work of art. Each frame and shot of this film is exquisitely composed, whether it's the stark white snow sitting atop the rocky Dakotan mountains or a squelchy puddle of muddy water trodden underfoot. It just looks so good, and part of this is due to the creative decision to employ only natural lighting. It would've been a bitch to film, but boy - the payoff is more than worth it.
What's more, Inarritu continues his trend of playing around with long, sweeping takes that have various stages of movement. We get these fantastically dynamic and intricate shots where there is so much to take in, but it never feels ugly, messy or complicated. In terms of gorgeous cinematography and direction, The Revenant is without compare this Oscar season.
Much has been said about the lengths Leonardo DiCaprio went to with making this film; sleeping inside a horse carcass, eating raw bison liver and so on. It's not the suave, boyish role that we're used to seeing from Leo, which makes it all the more impressive. His role demands something much more physical and primal as Glass painfully crawls through the wilderness with exposed wounds, infected injuries and pain etched across every inch of his face. We really feel this pain come across through DiCaprio's performance, and later, the determined hunger for revenge that follows. If this role doesn't put him in the forefront of the Best Actor Oscar race, nothing will.
However, as I said, The Revenant isn't without its flaws. My main issue with the film is how overly simplistic the plot is; peel away all the marvelous technical elements and we're left with a fairly run-of-the-mill revenge tale that has been dressed-up to appear prettier and more captivating than it really is. Don't get me wrong, the camerawork, cinematography and everything else that went into making the film are excellent; but it outshines the film itself, with the story just placeholder that feels strung out and fairly conventional. It's certainly not a narrative that warrants such a elongated runtime.
I also found that Tom Hardy's performance here was far from his best. Not bad, but certainly not an award-worthy turn on par with DiCaprio. It's not unheard of for a Tom Hardy performance to sort of lose its way through a misguided attempt at an accent (see also: The Dark Knight Rises) and I'm afraid the same can sort of be said about his role in The Revenant. His acting in itself was pretty great, but I kinda missed 80% of it because of the grizzly, unintelligible slurs that Hardy was using in place of actual dialogue.
Thematically, the film does posit a few ideas on the nature of revenge and human will for survival, but that's nothing new; hell, I can see that in a Liam Neeson movie like The Grey. That being said, the film does neatly sidestep portraying the Native American characters as one-dimensional monsters, a decision that does lend the film an extra layer of nuance.
At the end of the day, you can't help but be bowled over by the sheer filmmaking achievement on the screen with this film. If you're looking for sublime, visionary film-making, look no further than The Revenant. But if you're also looking for a film that underscores all that with a tightly-packaged, compelling story, The Revenant has its moments, but simply doesn't check every box along the way.
The Verdict: 8/10
The Revenant is an arresting, albeit imperfect, film that at its best is a gorgeous yarn about the strength of human spirit, and at its worst is an extremely pretty but somewhat bloated episode of Man vs. Wild. DiCaprio is superb, whilst Gleeson and Poulter also deliver excellent supporting performances.
The Revenant is in cinemas across Australia now.