If there’s a film that is the antithesis of a tearjerker, it is “The Revenant,” a semi-biographical Western set in 1823 Montana and South Dakota. Directed by Alejandro Iñárritu (“Birdman”), the movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as fur trapper Hugh Glass.
Through its depiction of Glass’ quest to avenge the death of his son, it presents an unsentimental, horrendously brutal depiction of life on the frontier. Yet the movie nearly moved me to tears. It wasn’t the story that brought me to that point but the stunning artistry employed while making the film.
I’ll begin with the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Shot using only natural light, “The Revenant” offers a realistic, but also hauntingly beautiful, depiction of a harsh winter. Cold, grey mountain peaks rise out of the Earth to break up the expanse of white, rivers cut like jagged knives through snow-covered terrain, and the forests have an unspoiled, primordial quality. I love the shots where Lubezki, under the direction of Iñárritu, stood in the midst of a forest and pointed his camera directly upward to reveal the statuesque majesty of the trees. My favorite image, though, is the one of Glass riding a horse through a thin, early morning fog that’s hovering like a small cloud just above the pale ground. It’s an image of exquisite, rarefied beauty that looks as though Lubezki dipped a brush in dabs of grey and blue paint and fashioned a masterpiece worthy of hanging in a museum.
Iñárritu’s direction is no less staggering. It is, in the face of the substantial adversity this production overcame, a monumental achievement in filmmaking. Shot in three countries in the dead of winter without the benefit of blue screen photography, Iñárritu has made a film of uncompromising realism. He guided the cast and crew through a frozen hell to make “The Revenant,” and the very suffering that went into its creation is visible on the screen.
Iñárritu’s command over the action is impressive. The battles are complex – arrows pierce the edges of the screen to impale the necks of fur traders, gun blasts take out both horse and rider, and dozens of frontiersmen and Indians go head to head in brilliantly choreographed dances of death, but the camera never loses track of what’s going on. In my favorite shot, Glass wakes up to the sound of Native Americans approaching, races to his horse, rides through the invading hoard, and leads his horse off the edge of a cliff into a snowy abyss. If I remember correctly, this was done in a single shot.
Then there’s DiCaprio, who delivers another phenomenal performance. Of all the people Iñárritu dragged through his icy purgatory to make this film, DiCaprio got the worst of it. From wading through rivers in subzero temperatures, to sleeping nude in a fake animal carcass, to enduring long takes in bitter winds, Iñárritu spared him no discomfort. Also, as a man hell bent on butchering his son’s killer, DiCaprio’s performance is continuously set on “intense.” With the exception of one brief scene, DiCaprio spends the entire movie looking as though he’s on the verge of going mad from anger, pain, or simply the strain of living in relentlessly inhospitable conditions. When the film was over, I felt as though DiCaprio had done more than act well; he’d taken me on the journey with him.
Before closing, I should mention the already legendary bear attack that gravely injures Glass and complicates his journey across the wilderness. Perhaps you’ve heard about it. I would imagine everything people have said about it is true. Done using stunt men and CGI, it must be seen to be appreciated.
“The Revenant” is an astonishing film. With its release, Iñárritu reminds us that the true power of cinema is not rendered in a computer or shot on a studio lot, but captured in the wilderness, in the midst of a storm, where men and women struggle against the odds and without a safety net to bring their vision to life. While I remember most of the films I see, I rarely remember the experience of seeing them. Not so with “The Revenant.” I will never forget sitting in the dark for two-and-a-half glorious hours, swept up in the magic of filmmaking and being overwhelmed by the emotions it stirred.
Four stars out of four. Rated R for violence, gory images, a sexual assault, language, and brief nudity.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at email@example.com.