Many movies set in the 1800s frontier have boasted authenticity. Wrangling in experts to make sure the audience is thrust into a less-civilized time, the movies in this subgenre get increasingly bleak and real.
It has gotten to a point where it’s hard for any new movie in that setting to deliver anything that surprises the audience.
But then Alejandro González Iñárritu went and made “The Revenant,” which proves there’s still new ground to cover in the frontier movie, and that he’s one of the best directors working today.
On the heels of winning the Best Director Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards for “Birdman” (which also won Best Picture), Iñárritu could certainly pull off back-to-back wins in both categories this year.
“The Revenant” is a masterwork of filmmaking that is as cringe-worthy violent as it is beautifully lush to look at.
In the film, Leonard DiCaprio plays a Wyoming scout named Hugh Glass who has been hired, along with his son, to lead a group of fur trappers on their expedition. Domhnall Gleeson plays the captain of the expedition, Andrew Henry, while Tom Hardy is John Fitzgerald, a money-hungry fur trader who contradicts everything Glass and Henry do.
Without giving too much away: Glass is mauled by a bear, left for dead, and is determined to find Fitzgerald and the others who left him behind.
The story is a simple revenge tale, but trust me: There’s a lot to it.
Iñárritu, who adapted the story from part of a Michael Punke novel of the same name, was determined to make the film as true to life as possible. That meant little to no computer graphics and shooting the movie in natural light. Filmed mostly in remote locations in Canada and Argentina, the film contains scenes that appear as if Glass is the first person to ever set foot there.
The photography, by Emmanuel Lubezki (he won Oscars the last two years for “Gravity” and “Birdman,” respectively), is breathtaking. On one hand, it captures the frantic pace of an attack by Native Americans against the fur trappers or Glass fighting a bear. The latter sequence is horrific (though perhaps not as horrific as a rumoured bear rape scene), with the camera so close to the action that the snorting by the bear makes the camera lens foggy. Between those moments of brutality, there are gorgeous wide shots that show off the natural wonder of the frontier.
But the heart of the movie is DiCaprio. Always known to go all in with his roles, he goes beyond that playing Glass, who is based on a real person who travelled cross-country after being injured by a bear. Along with sustaining the mauling, which is likely a mix of real bear and CGI, though Iñárritu won’t go into detail yet about how it was pulled off, DiCaprio eats real bison liver and in one scene guts a horse and goes inside it for warmth during a heavy snowstorm.
Though Glass doesn’t say much in the movie, it’s DiCaprio’s eyes and grunts that say more than words can. Most of the movie he does this growl as he breathes. Almost like, dare I say, a bear.
In a year with an unpredictable awards season and few sure things, it will be interesting to see what kind of upset wins take place. But it’s hard to deny the performance DiCaprio gives in this film when it comes to thinking of the Best Actor category.
Awards aside, “The Revenant” is a tour-de-force that rarely comes around anymore in the comic book-obsessed film world we live in. So go experience it.
“The Revenant” opens in limited release on Christmas Day and everywhere January 8.
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