An epic action movie set in a vast landscape that tells an age-old tale of revenge and redemption, The Revenant boasts stand-out performances and stunning visuals
Rumours of Werner Herzog-like demands and escalating production costs circulated around the making of The Revenant and it’s easy to see why. It’s a near three-hour epic that cost $135m and watching it is an almost physical experience.
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who made Birdman and Babel, the story itself might have been carved from the very landscape and foundation myths of America. Set in the Great Plains in 1823, we meet a team of trappers, lead by Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Andrew Henry, who go by such unromantic names as Dave Stomach Wound, Elk Dog, Coulter Naked Pale Trapper and Stubby Bill, but it is Leonardo DiCaprio's character, the quiet and watchful Hugh Glass, who is the most important man here.
DiCaprio excels as a man battling against the forces of nature
Glass is a frontiersman who has attached himself to the hunting team and who acts as their guide in the vast and treacherous wilderness. He is accompanied by his son Hawk, the only child from his relationship with his Pawnee Indian wife. In a series of lyrical flashbacks, we learn how she was murdered by marauding troops and that Glass and Hawk have now become a reluctant part of the more settled colonial community.
The Revenant begins with a brilliant action set piece when Arikara Indians ambush the expedition camp and force the trappers to flee upriver. However, the centrepiece of the film for many will be the now near legendary bear attack which sees Glass attacked in a forest, clawed and gnawed and then left for dead by his comrades.
Glass is then betrayed in the most terrible way by John Fitzgerald (a truly villainous and near unrecognisable Tom Hardy), a member of the expedition who also hoodwinks and cheats the innocent but loyal young trapper Bridger (a brilliant Will Poulter).
It's a visual feast
From here, The Revenant becomes a story of grim survival as Glass swears to avenge himself on Fitzgerald, and Iñárritu really puts DiCpario through it. In his quest, we see Glass survive the depths of a vicious winter by diving off sheer cliff tops, cauterising his wounds with gun powder, eating raw bison liver and, at one point, scooping out the insides of a horse so he can climb inside to stay warm. With each new challenge and setback, his prospects of survival becomes more and more desperate.
The Revenant is a real visual feast and it is also very violent - muskets and flintlock rifles flare in the frozen air and arrows pierce necks - and while DiCaprio is superb, it is Hardy who acts everybody off the frozen landscape. He really gets to flex his muscles after his bewilderingly mute and uncharismatic turn in Mad Max: Fury Road. The only dud note for me was a detached and unsure Gleeson as Captain Andrew Henry.
Tom Hardy is almost unrecognisable as Fitzgerald
In his first movie soundtrack since 1998, Ryuichi Sakamoto brings real atmosphere and sparseness, and Iñárritu mixes the metaphysical and the spiritual with pure savagery to near operatic effect. Everything here is on a huge scale and the violence and desperation is pretty much unrelenting.
As for those myths of early colonial America, The Revenant explodes them all in its portrayal of white settlers as genocidal land grabbers and the native American Indians as spiritual and deeply proud peoples who have been systematically pillaged and raped. However everybody here, whatever their motivations or principles, is dwarfed by the unforgiving and magnificent landscapes.
The Revenant is epic, atmospheric and visceral. It is also a great old-fashioned yarn.