Since the dawn of time, one question has been asked through the ages: when will Leonardo DiCaprio win an Oscar? Alejandro G. Iñárritu is attempting to help the cause with his latest project The Revenant. It’s based, albeit somewhat lightly, on the true tale of Hugh Glass, and his quest for revenge after being deserted following a bear mauling in the 1820s. Iñárritu and his co-writer Mark L. Smith took an incredible true story, stuffing it with Hollywood hyperbole in the best way possible.
The opening sequence sets the tone: a gritty attack by Native Americans on Glass and his group of fur trappers. The camera swoops and dives without blinking, snaking its way through the river whilst the battle rages on all around. The shot is hectic but captivating. Ironically, in a story that seems too extraordinary to be true, Alejandro Iñárritu and his director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki have created a hyper-realistic cinematic landscape.
Large parts of the movie are postcard shots of the locations, with Lubezki’s Oscar winning cinematography once again at the forefront as we are gifted with a high-angled shot of a gargantuan valley, buried under a sheet of snow. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass is dwarfed, barely visible amongst the sheer cliff faces. Whilst it could be argued that it’s unnecessary, it’s likely Iñárritu and his crew wanted to boast about their shots and locations after the production-hell they allegedly suffered in order to get them. Not only that, but it adds to the sense of gritty realism. The audience feels like they’re part of the journey as Glass gathers strength on his path to redemption.
Early on, Hugh Glass is looking ahead, scouting away from the rest of his group. The silence slowly becomes more apparent, until it dawns on everyone… this is the scene. Once you gain the awareness, the anticipation reaches a peak. The bear attack. You hear a subtle growl, some bear cubs stumble from behind a shrub. Leo turns to look over his shoulder and finds himself face to face with a raging grizzly. What follows is arguably the best sequence Alejandro Iñárritu has ever produced. Thrilling, intimate, breath-taking, terrifying. I thought it was fairly tame for a brief moment when the creature pauses with intrigue. I was wrong.
Whilst The Revenant is comfortably one of the most beautifully-shot films I’ve ever seen, it falls short with a predictable narrative. It’s exhilarating at times, but I found myself waiting for these scenes rather than being shocked when they surfaced from nowhere. The balance sits around 80% style and 20% substance, which won’t be as palatable for some as it will for others, me included.
The writing is also a little cringeworthy at times, despite terrific performances from a main cast that includes Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter. When Hardy’s John Fitzgerald finally runs into DiCaprio in a pulsating climax, he spouts a cheesy line which somewhat goes against the idea of ‘show don’t tell’. It didn’t take away from the moment too much, but could have been avoided or replaced.
Clocking in at a hefty 2 hours and 36 minutes, the majority of the film is Glass’ torturous journey from his shallow grave, which is told with a very intimate, physical performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. The pacing is good for the most part, more notably once Hugh Glass begins to recover his mobility. Once he begins to pick up pace, the narrative follows and the fluidity of the cinematography seen earlier on is thankfully recaptured.
Obviously, maybe even too obviously, The Revenant is angling for an Academy Award or two, and I have no hesitation that the cinematography category is already sealed. As for the others it is likely to be nominated for, the big question comes into the picture again. Is it Leo’s year? His performance was one of unquestioned commitment and tremendous physicality. He truly shows the spirit of a man who refuses to die.