Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu won a hatful of Oscars for his last feature Birdman but that Broadway-set film seems like a trifle by comparison with his latest effort. The Revenant is Iñárritu’s version of a western. It is a mad, visionary and quite often preposterous survival tale, very bloody, very violent and full of murky religious symbolism. It is also often astounding in its flights of macabre lyricism.
This has been a famously troubled production. Rumours abounded of tensions between director and cast. Given the demands placed on the actors, it would have been surprising if at least some of them hadn’t been in as much a state of revolt as Fitzgerald, the surly and psychotic fur trapper played here by Tom Hardy.
The film, set in 1823 in the frozen hinterlands of America, opens with a bravura, extremely gory set-piece. The fur trappers are attacked in their camp by the Native American warriors. Down come flaming arrows. Knives and tomahawks whistle through the air at an extraordinary velocity.
On Birdman, the ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki gave viewers the illusion they were watching a film in a single take. Here, during the early scenes of carnage, he aims for a tableau effect. We see dozens of characters in frame all at the same time. Someone here is being scalped, someone there is being stabbed. A trapper in running to the boat, another is writhing on the ground in agony.
A little later comes one of the strangest, most extraordinary scenes in the film in which trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is attacked by a bear. There have been prurient reports that the star was “raped” by the grizzly. That’s not the case but the attack lasts for a small eternity and is shot in such a realistic and close-up way that you could be forgiven for thinking you are watching a natural history documentary. The bear certainly gets up close and personal with its quarry. It paws and claws at DiCaprio, licks him, rips his back open and leaves him a bloodied pulp of a man.
The Revenant is based in part on a novel by Michael Punke but its characters are actual historical figures. The real Hugh Glass was mauled by a bear and faced a similar struggle to that endured by DiCaprio’s character here to survive.
DiCaprio here is a very long way removed from the clean-cut teen idol he was in Titanic days. His Hugh Glass is a hirsute, weatherbeaten figure who grunts as much as he speaks. His performance is as much a feat of endurance as it is a conventional piece of screen acting. DiCaprio conveys very effectively the character’s dogged desire to survive, if only for vengeance’s sake. Hardy is impressive as his scowling, murderous nemesis. There is strong support, too, from Will Poulter as the youngster caught between Glass and Fitzgerald.
At times, the film is slow moving, overly contemplative and full of self-conscious poetic imagery. At times, as the frontiersmen contemplates their mortality, it’s as if we are watching Davy Crockett being re-made by the great Russian arthouse director Andrei Tarkovsky. There are flashbacks in which Glass remembers his time living with the Native Americans. There is also one strange scene in which Glass keeps himself from freezing by disembowelling a horse and taking shelter in its still steaming carcass.
For all its reflective elements, this is also a ripping yarn, complete with chases through forests, escapes down waterfalls and fight sequences. You can’t help but detect a certain megalomania on behalf of the director - a desire to push every scene to the absolute limit and thereby to reach new peaks of spectacle. Some of his gambits are both self-indulgent and slightly baffling. (For example, in one late scene, for no very good reason other than it looks impressive, he throws in a full scale avalanche in the distance.)
The Revenant isn’t a smooth ride at all but it’s a film on the very grandest scale - a frostbitten epic which can’t help but provoke a sense of awe through its its visual daring and the sheer demented scope of its ambition.