Great movies make you feel that you are in a different time and place. When the lights dim in the theater and the screen lights up, there is an opportunity for a story to instantly transport the audience. This notion is never lost on the Academy Award winning duo of director Alejandro Inarritu (Amores Perros, Birdman) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), who masterfully transport you to 1823 America in The Revenant.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an explorer of the New World and expert scout of the new frontier that is early America. He is part of a fur trapping expedition, led by Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina) who plays the pragmatic and conflicted leader of the company. Glass is also accompanied by his son Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck, who has a Native American mother and is truly stuck between two worlds. He becomes the catalyst and motivation behind Glass' epic journey once he crosses paths with John Fitzgerald, played with a sinister charm by Tom Hardy. Fitzgerald is a man motivated by money and solely self-preservation. It is his treachery that sets the movie in motion, once Glass is mauled by a bear.
The Revenant begins with the sound of breathing and the last memories Glass has of his family together, which indicates the last moments of tranquility in his existence. It also signals the last time the viewer has to catch their own breath, as the action kicks into gear about three minutes in and never lets up. Every individual shot is crafted like a work of art, bringing to mind visuals in such films as Terrance Malick's The New World. Inarritu then jarringly breaks up these moments of introspective solitude, with unexpected threats constantly lurking around every ridge and tree. The result is a pacing that at times, competes with the intense visceral action of George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road.
Inarritu and Lubezski captured the film's unique look using only natural light, which gives the movie a sense of authenticity that can't be replicated. In addition, he uses the same long takes and tracking shots that gave Birdman its charm. However, the shots in The Revenant give the viewer the sense that they are really watching violent Arikara raids, agonizing scenes of survival, and bear attacks, all unfold before your eyes.
Simply put, the bear attack scene is one of the most hauntingly realistic depictions of an animal attack every put on film. There is no real warning or music cue to alert the viewer that the attack is imminent, or that the mauling will ever actually end. Inarritu spends an uncomfortable amount of time on DiCaprio, as he is literally torn apart and toyed with by the bear. The true power of nature and the humbling fragility of man is captured in this one scene in a way that perhaps hasn't been done before. In a year that saw the return of Star Wars and one of the best action movies in recent years with Mad Max: Fury Road, it's a stunning achievement that the bear attack is the hands down the most memorable sequence of the year.
One of the film's shortcomings is that the string of horrific calamities that DiCaprio's Glass has to endure, at some point does border on Wile E. Coyote levels of misfortune. It's one of the rare things that threatens to throw the viewer out of the movie. With a film as tightly-crafted as this, those moments do stand out. However with that being said, Inarritu makes you experience each life-threatening moment, as if you are clawing for survival along with Glass.
DiCaprio shines as Glass and is able to convey lines of emotional dialogue simply through painful stares and body language, that truly makes you truly identify with his struggle. His performance is truly award-worthy and testament to his conviction as a world-class actor.
Inarritu also surrounded DiCaprio with some of the best acting talent around and they do not disappoint. As all of the technical accomplishments in the film would be for nothing, if it wasn't being grounded by solid performances. Hardy is impeccably despicable as the miserable Fitzgerald who gets to be the flashier antagonist to DiCaprio's restrained performance as Glass. Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) also shines as Jim Bridger, who would go on to become one of the most famous explorers in the Old West. However, here he is simply a scared kid, who is in a situation that is way over his head and Poulter gives a surprisingly effective and sympathetic performance. It's easy to pull for the character as he is manipulated into an unthinkable position by Fitzgerald and his sub-plot is intriguing enough to have made a movie all of his own.
The Revenant is made, from top to bottom, by masters of their craft. Maybe not since Apocolypto has there been such an unflinchingly visceral action film, that feels as tangible and authentic. It's also even more impressive when you look how diametrically opposite The Revenant is from Inarritu's previous movies. This is a brutally unforgiving film that takes an unflinching look at one of the Old West's most legendary stories. It's a must see story of survival and a complex exploration of the physical, mental, and spiritual limits of human beings. The Revenant is a powerful, majestic, and haunting must-see experience, that will stay with you long after you leave the theater and a reminder of the true power of film.