In 1850, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’, and he hadn’t even seen ‘The Revenant’. Fresh from lampooning actors in ‘Birdman’, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has put aside satire for savages in a deceptively simple exploration of violence, pain and survival. Will it win big this awards season? As surely as ursine defecation in the boscage.
Based loosely on the experiences of frontiersman Hugh Glass in the early nineteenth century, ‘The Revenant’ is refreshingly unpatronising in its opening five minutes. While other film-makers might nervously rely on expositional voiceover to introduce the (admittedly quite niche) 1820s mid-west, Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki let the landscape do the talking; flooded forest and giant, swaying treetops create a tone of serenity before brutality makes its explosive entrance.
Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his men are ambushed by the natives, who introduce themselves through the whistling accuracy of their lethal arrows. Adding intensity to this is Iñárritu’s camera, which delights in close-ups of mauled faces and pierced necks; it scurries around the battlefield like a wild boar, often keeping low to the undergrowth and looking up at the barbarity.
From here, Iñárritu continues to make beauty out of destruction. Glass and his men (including Tom Hardy’s gruff nihilist Fitzgerald, Domhnall Gleeson’s stoic leader Captain Henry, and Will Poulter’s green, worrysome Bridger) retreat to the mountains, hoping to escape further terror from the Injuns. It is at this point that we get the ‘bear’ necessities of the plot; a grizzly battle that reminds us of the fragility of the human body and our inherent instinct for survival.
There is something marvellously incommunicable about pain, but Di Caprio gives a good old go as he is being broken, skinned and brutalised. The sheer power and dominance of the bear as it pins Glass down, inspects him, and causes monumental damage without much effort, is terrifying and truly uncomfortable to watch. While it is the flayed skin and deep gashes that will last longest in the memory, it is actually the weight of the bear that I found most distressing. Di Caprio’s straining as a giant paw was rested on his head is horrible, and it’s a wonder that his noggin does not explode then and there, splattering brains onto the lens. This might sound facetious, but Iñárritu frequently muddies the screen with flecks of blood, dirt, and even the warm breath of the bear, which fogs our vision of its attack.
Fitzgerald and Bridger agree to watch Glass until his inevitable death, but the former is only plied by money and would rather hurry things along. A failed murder and hurried burial (alive) later, and Glass is left for dead, bones shattered and wounds infected. What follows is actually a rather simple tale, told with pretentious grandeur. Survival, revenge and masculinity all vie for the prize of Most Overt Feem, and there are frequent gruff conversations about honour.
It is thanks to Iñárritu’s slow, ponderous direction and surreal imagery, as well as Lubezki’s cinematography and the sparse, primal score, that ‘The Revenant’ just about leaves B-movie territory undiscovered. It is also thanks to the performances, which do their best with surprisingly thin material. Di Caprio has made his first Oscar win inevitable through his depiction of pain (and his mutation into Orson Welles) but it’s a shame that his character is actually rather dull. Iñárritu tries to inspire pathos through his bond with a half-native son, but this narrative wisps away like the smoke of a peace pipe. There are some fine touches: Glass’s hunger is felt through his Gollum-esque chewing of bone marrow and still-warm buffalo meat, while a moment when he imagines shooting an elk with his home-made crutch says far more that his few words of dialogue.
Hardy’s Fitzgerald is more mysterious and therefore more engaging; he conveys more with a stare than Di Caprio does with grunting and dribbling. Their revenge-fuelled, snowy showdown, with its shades of ‘The Shining’, is a lovely echo of the earlier bear scene; the fight is inelegant, messy and genuinely tense. It is just a minor pity that, away from the horror, ‘The Revenant’ is sometimes as cold and unmoving as the landscape it reveres.