Last year, Alegandro Inarritu’s Birdman completely blew me away, in a way that not a lot of movies do. Birdman combined some of my favorite themes, a fantastic script, brilliant direction and one of the best casts I’ve ever seen to rocket up my best of the year list to hit number one. And one of my consistent film rules is that if a director makes it to my best of the year slot, I am required to give all of their subsequent films a chance.
That rule works out for me less often than you might assume. With the exception of the Coen Brothers, every director who has made it to the number one slot has at some point disappointed me. Neil Blomkamp, The Watchowskis, Nicolas Winding Refn, even Christopher Nolan, all of them have managed to disappoint me at some point. Which is a longform way of me saying that while Inarritu’s followup, The Revenant looked quite good, I was a little nervous.
The plot kicks off more or less right away with High Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) a tracker working with a semi-military group of trappers hunting out in the unexplored wilderness of pre-settled western America with his half-Native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Extraordinarily quickly, they are attacked by the local Ree tribe, and are forced to flee.
On their way back home, Glass is mauled by a bear, but manages to survive, albeit badly (really badly) wounded. Eventually, unable to carry him any further, his team leaves him to die, with his son and 2 others, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) promising to stay behind until he dies, and give him a proper burial. But when Fitzgerald and Hawk get in an argument, Fitzgerald kills him and flees, leaving the barely alive Glass to try and pull himself back from the brink of death to seek revenge.
The Revenant is a bleak, long and incredibly violent film. From more or less the first moment, it’s knee deep in human ugliness and it only manages to sink deeper. Between historically accurate representations of the horrors inflicted upon the local Natives, and Glass’ own mission of recovery and revenge, the film may be the hardest to watch Oscar film since 12 Years a Slave.
So naturally, I liked it. Well liked is the wrong word, but this review is going to end with me recommending it. I like happy, upbeat movies as much as the next person, but I also appreciate bleak and horribly hard to watch movies too (both 12 Years a Slave and No Country for Old Men made it to my number 1 slot). And while The Revenant isn’t quite as good as either of those movies, it’s still a damn fine movie.
The big draw, the one the movie is banking on to help it get most of it’s fairly large budget back, is Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s incredibly, almost insanely, devoted to the role. Huge chunks of the film require him to emote silently, or through very limited dialogue, and he’s pretty excellent at it. People have been making jokes about him not having won an Oscar for a while now, but I think this year he’s finally going to do it. Maybe then they’ll shut up.
He gets some solid support from Tom Hardy, who disappears completely into the role as a selfish, incredibly racist (even by the standards of the day) villain. He disappears deep into the role, to the point where I had trouble recognizing him. And he’s not an indistinct looking guy. The rest of the cast is solid, although aside from maybe Hawk, none of them really get enough screen time to give us much of a read, although Forest Goodluck is pretty good from the bit of time he gets.
But while Leo is quite good in the part, and he is, he’s not enough to carry the film on his own. No, what moves the film from merely “Pretty good” up to “Great” in my eyes is the direction. Inarritu is a great director, and he proves that here, with beautiful shots of the wilderness, fantastic editing on the action beats and overall beautiful visuals. The Revenant might be the most beautiful film about human ugliness in years.
It’s also got some damn impressive, if minimal, special effects. The makeup used to create Glass’ injuries and scars looks great, and the costuming and gore effects look fantastic. I guess the CGI for the bear seems off…although my love of bears might mean that I’m too familiar with them judge. Seriously, check out these bears.
The weak part is mostly in the script. I guess the extremely limited dialogue means that it didn’t get a ton of thought, but huge chunks of it are really obvious and clunky. Also, aside from Glass and MAYBE Fitzgerald, none of the characters really get much in the way of backstory or depth. That might be intentional, to keep the laser focus on Glass (or just to keep the story as minimal as possible) but it ends up hurting the movie.
The Revanant is a movie I don’t think will be for everyone, since it’s a bleak and overall distressing film, and I do think it probably could have toned the Native focused violence down a bit, historical accuracy or no. But it’s a beautiful, engaging and intense experience nonetheless, and one that’s well worth seeing, especially in theaters.
Unless you haven’t seen The Big Short. See that first.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile, and the Alaskan part is the key element when it comes to his love of bears.
– fantastic cinematography and direction
– great lead performance from Leo
– incredibly intense and engaging
– very bleak and depressing
– script is pretty weak, especially compared to Birdman
– didn’t hire a real bear