Review: ‘The Revenant’ is a Brutal & Gorgeous Revenge Western

By December 4, 2015

Coming off of his critically-acclaimed, Oscar-winning film with Birdman, director Alejandro G. Innaritu has returned to movie theatre screens with The Revenant, a frontier Western that’s just as ambitious as his predecessor, which was shot in a simulated one take. Re-teaming with long-time collaborator in cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki too, the filmmaking duo have created one of the most unique, if flawed, films of the past few years that includes more than its fair share of moments likely to leave audience members gasping for breath.

Made up of an all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and a surprisingly dynamic Will Poulter, the film is a spectacle of a different nature than Birdman, which was applauded for its technical achievements. Featuring one-takes reminiscent of Innaritu’s previous outing, but possibly even more breathtaking, the film is heavily inspired by the work of directors like Terrence Malick, using glorious shots of the environment and scenery to help drive the story forward. Above everything else, the film is like a collection of greatest hits from Lubezki, who may be on the way to his third Oscar win with his work here.

The film, which is set during 1820s America, follows a group of workers nearing the end of their mission after acquiring a large amount of fur pelts, looking to resell them later. However, when a group of Native Americans lay waste to their camp and operation, killing more than two-thirds of their men, those left alive are forced to find a new way to safety, ditching their boat and carving a new path through the land. Led by Hugh Glass (Dicaprio), who operates as the group’s navigator and guide due to his expert knowledge of the environment, we watch as he struggles to get the group home while protecting himself and his son from some of the more nefarious group members.

When Glass is left hanging onto his life by his fingernails following a savage bear attack though, he is forced to watch as his life falls apart around him when John Fitzgerald (Hardy) leaves him for dead. Crawling (literally) back from the grave, Glass embarks on a journey across the frozen frontier, looking for Fitzgerald, and hoping to find justice for the wrongdoings done to him. What follows is a harrowing, slow burn journey for the soft-spoken Glass, who tries to survive against the cold and harsh environments, his own personal injuries, and Native Americans hot on his trail.

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Opening with several Malick-esque shots and voice over narration, The Revenant quickly explodes onscreen with one of the most brilliantly choreographed and shot sequences of the year, as Glass and the other men try and make their way to a boat nearby, grabbing as many pelts as they can while dozens of Native Americans are dropping bodies of their co-workers left and right. Lubezki moves the camera seamlessly through the violence, refusing to cut once until the surviving members have made it to safety. The way it seamlessly introduces each of the film’s main players, while also immediately throwing you headfirst into the story, may be Lubezki’s most accomplished one-take yet.

Dicaprio shines as Hugh Glass throughout, barely uttering a word in the film, while also being haunted by the tragedies of his past, and the actor shows his character’s complex emotions with ease, almost making it look too easy. Tasked with dragging his body across freezing snow and harsh terrains too, possibly no other actor has put themselves through as much physical hardships this year as he does onscreen in this film, with the camera refusing to cut away from his pain, perfectly mirroring Glass’ conviction and driven agenda. Out of all of the actors’ past chances, this is possibly the closest to an Oscar he’s gotten yet, and it’ll likely be one of the biggest questions come next year’s awards season, if his losing streak will finally be broken this time around.

Hardy works as a somewhat capable villain, adding enough dimension and ticks to his character, and while he’ll likely receive a nomination for his performance as well, his character is probably the least dimensional of the bunch. A physical injury on top of his head hints at a history of pain and violence though, and while one monologue his character gives about halfway through the movie explains its background, he never quite becomes as compelling as audience members may want. Other standouts include the always-reliable Domhnall Gleeson, who gives a steady and headstrong turn as Andrew Henry, the team’s lead captain that tries to keep the integrity of the operation alive, even while it crumbles right in front of him. Will Poulter gives a surprisingly dramatic turn as Jim Bridger as well, a young boy tricked into going along with Fitzgerald’s plan, and hints at a potential for Poulter to become more than just the goofy kid everyone recognizes from We’re the Millers.

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It may sound odd to call this Alejandro G. Innaritu’s most ambitious film yet for anyone who is familiar with the talented director’s past filmography, but watching The Revenant, it’s hard to think of another word for it. Blending some of his past trademarks while expanding into entirely new, untouched territory, Innaritu is like many of the characters in his film, surging through the mud and temptation of making things easy, to consistently turn out some of the most inventive films of the century so far. In terms of cinema, he’s one of our greatest directors, and whether you enjoy his films or not, there’s no denying the master craftsmanship of his work. That’s the thing though, is that he makes his films so well, that you want to forgive them for their flaws.

So while The Revenant manages to pull off a number of its goals, there are moments when its ambition exceeds its grasp, including several pacing issues and an overall weak antagonist in the end, no matter how badly Hardy tries to make him interesting. The slow-burn quality of the film and its often repetitive nature is likely going to divide audiences in every theatre, between those who love it and those who hate it. Don’t be surprised if you hear the word “pretentious” thrown around quite a bit when discussing the movie, and from a certain perspective, they’re not necessarily wrong either.

Coming so close to perfection, the movie could have benefitted from some extra story work or editing cuts, as you reach a point during Glass’ journey where it will be hard for audience members not to roll their eyes and ask, “Can’t this guy just catch a break?” One sequence in particular involving a horse chase in a cliff ended up feeling more pointless than it likely should have, and slowed the story down again, when it could have benefited from speeding up.

However, if you’re looking at The Revenant as one of this year’s winter “event” films, it does not disappoint, offering some of the most gorgeous set pieces, visuals, acting, and directing you’ll see all year. So whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying the pure skill that was used to bring this film together, creating one of the most visceral and engrossing experiences of the year. Even if it might be a harder pill to swallow for some.

The Revenant will hit limited theatres on December 31st, before expanding to a wider release on January 8th, 2016.

Make sure to keep checking back for more updates — right here on GeekNation.

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Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable
  • David Johnson

    Is Tom Hardy Mandatory in all movies now??????