I wasn’t as big of a fan of Birdman, last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, as most other people, as sublime an example of filmmaking as it is. Nor was I rooting for its director, Alejandro G Iñárritu, to win Best Director, not because he wasn’t deserving, but because I was rooting for Boyhood‘s Richard Linklater. This year, however, with just a couple of weeks before the Oscars, I’m seriously leaning towards rooting for both the director and his movie, The Revenant, without a doubt one of the most remarkably executed, jaw-droppingly beautiful and suffocatingly intense films of the year.
The film is loosely based on the story of 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was among a group of military hunters attacked by Native Americans in the wilderness. There is another major event that happens after this which I’m not going to share for the sake of those who haven’t seen the trailer. Yes, it’s in the trailer, but I was one of those people who saw the trailer after the movie and thought it gave away too much, spoiling a lot of big plot points.
Anyway, The Revenant is as harrowing of a movie experience as you can imagine. Centred around themes of survival, revenge and redemption, the film is highlighted by its brutal, visceral violence, juxtaposed against the harsh and unforgiving, but undeniably majestic beauty of the Lousiana Purchase landscape.
I was blown away. Part of it is Iñárritu’s spectacular visual style, filled with long takes and sweeping, constantly moving shots. The scenes are so fluid, so perfectly choreographed, the camera angles so unique — it’s the type of thing I thought was only possible in animation or video games, never in live-action feature films. I’m sure there are plenty of special effects, but it’s all done so seamlessly that the visual experience comes across as terrifyingly real. With the possible exception of his friend and fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, I don’t think anyone else could have done it with as much flair as Iñárritu.
Despite a 156-minute running time, which may be too long for some, there is never a dull moment. The film is always moving along, the story always progressing. As a fetishist for watching personal hardships in the wild (one of my favourite movies is Into the Wild, and I also really liked Reese Witherspoon’s Wild from a year ago), I loved the torturous solitary survival scenes. I don’t exactly know why — maybe it’s the man vs wild dynamic or the exhilaration from seeing the ultimate will to survive, or perhaps I just have problems.
The quieter moments have the effect of amping up the several major action set pieces in the film, which are among the most amazing I’ve seen this year alongside Mad Max: Fury Road. Everything is presumably choreographed but looks and feels raw and realistic, making the experience so much more tense than the modern CGI-dominated superhero action we’re accustomed to these days.
I read about the horror stories in making this film, how nearly everything was shot in natural light, an astounding feat in itself. I’m sure it was as freezing as it looked on screen, and Leo, who just picked up the Golden Globe for Best Actor, absolutely deserves his first Oscar for his portrayal of Glass. With not much dialogue to deliver, it’s a much more subtle performance than what he delivered in The Wolf of Wall Street, but boy did he go through hell to get the job done. His dedication and professionalism notwithstanding the success he has already achieved is impressive.
Likewise, kudos to the rest of the super cast, which includes Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domnhall Gleeson. Hardy, in particular, gives a marvellous performance that’s much more nuanced than it would have been in lesser hands, and I’m pretty certain an Oscar nomination is heading his way (though I’d still say Mark Rylance from Bridge of Spies is the favourite.
If there is something to nitpick, it would probably be that it is sometimes a little difficult to decipher what some of the characters are saying because of the way they spoke back then, coupled with the mumbling and the twang. That said, this is the type of film you can watch and figure out without understanding a single word of the dialogue.
When all the elements are put together, it’s hard for me to deny that The Revenant is anything but a modern masterpiece. The combination of Iñárritu’s visual style, strong script and masterful pacing, combined with the simple yet intense plot and fabulous performances, results in a unique journey that ranks right at the top of my 2015 cinematic experiences.
5 stars out of 5!