Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is on a roll right now. After nabbing three well deserved Oscars for the funny, complex, beautifully shot Birdman, he returns with The Revenant - an epic widescreen saga of survival and revenge. It's his best film yet; brutal, beautiful and brilliant. Expect Inarritu and his cohorts to clean up at the Oscars again.
The Revenant follows Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) a member of a party of trappers in the 1800's led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) and including Glass' half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). They are on the hunt for pelts in the unsettled wilderness of what is now North and South Dakota. After their camp is ambushed by Ree Native Americans, and many of their men killed, the survivors decide to flee back to their outpost at Fort Kiowa, on foot.
While scouting their route through the wilderness, Glass is mauled by a bear and left with severe injuries, barely clinging to life. Unable to carry Glass through the forests and mountains on his makeshift stretcher, but unwilling to kill him, Captain Henry leaves Glass behind to be watched over by John Fitzgerald (Hardy), young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Hawk. Fitzgerald, seeing Glass as a burden that will get them killed, convinces himself that the right thing to do is to end his suffering. He's prevented from doing so by Hawk, who he then kills, and, after convincing a reluctant Bridger that they are about to be attacked by the Ree, buries Glass alive and leaves him for dead. Glass survives and makes his own way back to Fort Kiowa, his heart set on revenge.
Let's be clear: The Revenant could have been a disaster. Based on a little-known novel by Michael Punke, it had been in production since sometime in 2011. The film's budget ballooned from $60m to $135m, and Inarritu's ambitions plan to eschew almost all CGI and film only in natural light lead to the filming schedule to drag on far longer than expected, causing Hardy to drop out of his role in 2016's Suicide Squad; and several crew members left or were sacked during the tension-filled shoot. If that wasn't enough, DiCaprio had to learn how to shoot a musket, build a fire, learn ancient healing techniques and speak two Native American languages. In the end the dedication of all involved paid off. The Revenant could have been a modern day Heaven's Gate, but instead it is a modern day masterpiece.
DiCaprio's performance is elemental. Hugh Glass barely speaks, when he does it's either a murmer or a raspy whisper. Unrecognisable beneath his bushy frontiersman beard and covered in scar tissue, DiCaprio's Glass is determined, resourceful, and pushes himself beyond human limits of endurance in search of vengeance against Fitzgerald. Tom Hardy humanises the film's main antagonist as he often does, Fitzgerald is greedy and selfish, sure, but you can see that in his own mind he is simply trying to survive in hostile terrain. Fearful of Native Americans after suffering a scalping in the past, his first instinct is for self-preservation, even if it means turning on fellow trappers.
Alongside the stellar performances of DiCaprio and Hardy is The Revanant's real star: the natural world. The film is a visual love letter to the unsettled American wilderness (even though the majority of the filming actually took place in Canada and Argentina, rather than the US) as we're taken on a journey from muggy, moss-covered forests to snowy mountain peaks, cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki has outdone himself with an incalculable number of awe-inspiring shots. It's a cliche, but this really is a film made for the big screen.
The Revenant is riveting. The hyper-realistic depiction of knife fights and open wounds may mean it's not a film for the squeamish, but for everyone else it's a must-see. A true-to-life Western, depicting life at the time as a bleak battle for survival, it kicks against a traditionally sensitized version of the "Old West" and provides a gruelling tour through life on the edge of civilisation. You have to see it. Even if it might put you off going camping ever again. It's brutal. It's beautiful. It's brilliant.