An icy chill blows through Alejandro Iñárritu’s period drama The Revenant, and it’s not just from the horrendous weather. In The Revenant’s bitter world of head lice, scalpings, casual murder and revenge, there is little kindness to be found – much less forgiveness.
The easy synopsis might go thus: Leonardo DiCaprio’s expert tracker and marksman, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his comrades, not least the treacherous, flea-bitten John Fitzgerald (an almost unrecognisable Tom Hardy). Hauling himself across the icy north-western wilderness, Glass miraculously survives his injuries and resolves to find the man who left him behind.
There is, however, far more to Iñárritu’s film than a straight, cathartic revenge tale. The film’s whole sequence of events – the one that leads to Glass’ fateful and incredibly bloody brush with a mother grizzly – is triggered by a domino effect of gruesome conflicts. The first, and most shocking, sees a tribe of Native Americans attacks Glass’ camp, seemingly intent on stealing their haul of animal skins – in reality, they’re on the search for a missing daughter.
Iñárritu, who shot Birdman in what looked like a single flowing take, pulls off a different yet similarly mesmerising technical feat here. His handheld camera swirls and glides across the rapids, snow and earthy forests, yet also gets in close to study his characters. A battle sequence near The Revenant’s opening has a startling immediacy, the lens whipping back and forth as a camp full of trappers is shot full of arrows. At one point, Iñárritu stages a kind of relay race of violence: a hand-to-hand fight flows seamlessly to a warrior on horseback, who in turn is shot by a marksman, who in turn is hit by a flying axe.
Once that sequence is over, Emmanuel Lubezki’s crystal-clear digital cinematography has become all-enveloping. DiCaprio simply is a bearded, 19th century man clinging to survival. Hardy really is a scarred, faintly sociopathic mercenary with designs on buying some land down south. The filmmakers’ cameras are simply there, recording the action. In Birdman or Amores Perros, Iñárritu’s directorial flourishes occasionally drew attention to themselves; here, they’re so perfectly of a piece with the Cormac McCarthy-esque storytelling that it’s only as the final credits roll that its brilliance springs to mind.
Coupled with an ominous score, The Revenant depicts a bleak yet irresistible world that feels as much like a vision of a post-apocalypse as it does a sketch of the past. When the much-vaunted bear attack occurs around half an hour in, we feel the horrifying power of the beast’s teeth and claws, Iñárritu capturing the moment in one unblinking, fearsome sequence.
It’s a world of violence, cruelty and above all separation; rival groups of people killing and being killed, attacking and counter-attacking. Murder follows murder, revenge follows revenge. In the final analysis, even Fitzgerald’s betrayal makes sense from a certain standpoint; in a brutal world, split-second decisions can have far-reaching consequences. The Revenant depicts it all not so much as a horror but a tragic inevitability.
We can only guess at what the actors and filmmakers went through to capture such an authentic-looking movie. Taken at face value, DiCaprio’s ordeal looks positively harrowing; within the first hour alone he’s eaten the marrow from the bones of a mouldering bear carcass, bitten the head off an apparently live fish, and chowed down on the steaming liver of a fallen buffalo. There’s more to DiCaprio’s contribution to the film than stunt eating, however; it’s also a captivating physical performance, his face conveying horror, determination and despair in roughly equal parts. The supporting cast is also worth a mention: Domhnall Gleeson as a lily-livered captain; Will Poulter as a young tracker cowed into leaving Glass behind by the imposing Fitzgerald.
Startlingly violent but also unspeakably beautiful, The Revenant is a real cinematic achievement. At times, it has the earthy mania of Fitzcarraldo-era Werner Herzog. At others it has the lyrical elegance of a Kurosawa epic. Only one or two late shots don’t quite ring true; the odd dream sequence tipping over from sublime poetry to clanging symbolism. Yet The Revenant remains extraordinary, with at least two moments that made this writer gasp – quite an achievement in an era of bludgeoning special effects.
The icy chill that pulses through The Revenant is difficult to shake. It’s a long, brutal, sometimes difficult to watch film, but it’s also an unforgettable one.
The Revenant is out in UK cinemas on the 15th January.