The Revenant is a work of art created from adversity, a proper widescreen treat for cinemagoers to immerse themselves in. Cast and crew endured freezing conditions and long takes to realise director Inarritu’s ambitious vision of a revenge western shot using only natural light and minimal CGI. Leonardo DiCaprio’s astonishing central performance is hardly acting at all: it is a symphony of suffering.
As we lesser mortals struggle through the cold snap of a New Year, The Revenant, inspired by the experiences of frontiersman Hugh Glass, is an inspiring reminder of extraordinary feats of human endurance. A member of a group of hunter/trappers in the North American wilderness circa 1823, Glass (DiCaprio) is badly mauled by a grizzly bear, then left for dead by Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a mercenary fur trapper, who also kills his son. Crawling and dragging himself through the snow, Glass seeks revenge.
In flashback we learn that Glass has already lost his Pawnee indian wife, whose words he hears when delirious with pain and hunger, giving him the strength to endure, to be more like a ‘tree trunk in a storm’. He remembers passing this stoical advice on to his son: ‘don’t give up, you hear me. As long as you can draw a breath, you fight’.
As Glass DiCaprio has to wrestle with a (CGI) bear, eat raw fish, light a fire using a knife and a stone, swim through raging rapids, ride over a cliff and climb inside his own dead horse to stay warm. Throughout the film’s ordeals his eyes express a dazed humanity and the dying embers of a burning purpose. If DiCaprio wins his first Oscar this year, it will be richly deserved – he was put through ‘some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do … enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly’. Other crew members either quit or were fired because of the difficult shoots.
Amongst a strong supporting cast, a barely-recognisable Tom Hardy speaks with an authentic Southern twang and provokes the film’s only laughter: he tells a story about a man who swore he saw God in the forest – ‘turns out God is a squirrel (pronounced ‘squirl’) … I shot and ate that sonofabitch’. Dom Gleeson as Captain Henry and Will Poulter (so good in Son of Rambo) as Bridger also impress, embodying decency and kindness respectively.
If the message of The Revenant is to never give up, then it also highlights the importance of inter-racial co-operation. Glass befriends a Pawnee indian who shares bison meat with him and saves his life by building a shelter during a blizzard. In a parallel plotline Chief Elk Dog of the Akikara tribe is also seeking revenge – on those who have kidnapped his daughter, Powaqa. When Glass chances upon the girl, his actions are crucial to the film’s finale.
The Revenant was filmed using only natural light on locations in Canada, the United States and Argentina. The majestic landscapes are like a character in their own right, taking centre stage and dwarfing the actors. It sometimes feels as if we have wandered into a nature documentary about the North American wilderness, with snow-capped beauty, icy rivers, herds of deer and the Northern Lights. For much of the first half of the film nature provides its own soundtrack before Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score ramps up the tension with ominous foghorn synth chords, building to more lush string orchestration as the brutal showdown approaches.