Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) is at an interesting stage of his career. He’s been turning in critically acclaimed performances since 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, with no obvious missteps in his impressive catalogue. He has been nominated for an Academy Award for acting four times, though he has never taken home a golden statue. It’s becoming somewhat of a running joke that he hasn’t won; and it shouldn’t be. After viewing The Revenant, I can say that he’s turned in arguably the performance of his career, and hopefully that elusive award is within his grasp.
DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a weather-beaten trapper traversing the brutal frontier of 1820’s Midwestern America. We meet Glass and his fellow men as they fend off an attack from Native Americans, their party whittled down to just over a dozen men. This early scene sets the tone, as the men are equally vulnerable to both the harsh landscape and its native inhabitants. Glass faces an early challenge from fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road), who doubts his navigational abilities and questions his leadership quite disrespectfully. He insults Glass and his teenaged son Hawk (newcomer Forrest Goodluck), whose Pawnee mother was murdered when he was just a boy. Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina) acts as peacemaker, leading the decimated outfit while deferring to Glass as the more seasoned frontiersman.
While exploring the dense forest, Glass spies a pair of bear cubs. The mother isn’t far behind, and before he can fire a musket, she pounces viciously, instinctively protecting her young. The relentless grizzly slings a helpless Glass to and fro, mauling him mercilessly. This is the scene you’ve probably heard about, and it was incredible. Director Alejandro Inarritu (Birdman, 21 Grams) had me riveted, effectively employing creative camera angles and use of sound to transport the viewer alongside DiCaprio. We see, hear and feel what he does. As the beast heaves in and out the camera lens fogs with condensation, the fear primal and palpable.
After surviving the brutal attack, Glass’ men stitch him up as best they can. Realizing it’s impossible to carry him on a makeshift stretcher while climbing a steep, snowy mountain ridge, they agree that Hawk, Fitzgerald and a young trapper named Bridger (Will Poulter, The Maze Runner) will stay behind with the ailing Glass. I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers, but if you simply consult the definition of revenant, you can deduce what happens when Fitzgerald is left to care for Glass. According to Merriam Webster, a revenant is one that returns after death or a long absence.
Inarritu has crafted a stunning film. He extracted every ounce of ability from DiCaprio, down to the bone marrow. I’ve never seen an actor give so much of his body to a performance. Much in the way a prizefighter gives his body to his craft, DiCaprio completely immersed himself in the role of Hugh Glass. He was tender, vulnerable, physically and emotionally spent under the sheer weight of what he was called to do. He caught the flu several times while filming, consumed raw bison liver, and slept in an animal carcass. We’re accustomed to seeing actors transform themselves physically for roles, but this was different. DiCaprio didn’t alter his physique, but he endured tremendous physical hardship, and his performance was a revelation.
The landscape was ironically beautiful yet brutal, a brilliant juxtaposition Inarritu depicted masterfully. In one scene the snow swirled like interplanetary dust, one breathtaking scene of many. Moreover, I don’t usually pay attention to sound in film, but here it added to an overall feeling of visceral authenticity. Glass faced deadly internal and external conflict, battling the elements, animals and indigenous people alike. Inarritu harkened back to a period in American history influenced by the transcendentalism espoused by the likes of Thoreau and Emerson, capturing an aesthetic that belied the occasionally spiritual relationship between man and nature. I could blather indefinitely about this film, a work of art. The Revenant is the first must-see film of 2016. Grade: A