The Revenant (2015)     ★★★★½

Around this time last year director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman was garnering the Academy buzz necessary to catapult it to victory on Oscar night, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography, to list a few of its trophies. Here we are a year later with his follow up The Revenant, a vastly superior film on all levels, which one can only hope will make voters wish they’d just held out another year. Winning two in a row is difficult, considering the Academy’s penchant for spreading the wealth, and usually not when it is most deserved. But The Revenant is certainly one of the year’s very best, a tale of survival and revenge unlike any to grace the screen in recent memory, and with a commanding performance by Leonardo DiCaprio at its core, the Academy will be hard-pressed to deny its greatness when that final envelope is torn open.

The Revenant concerns a group of trappers in the early nineteenth century, pillaging the remote pre-Dakota forests for bear hides, when one among them, Hugh Glass (DiCapiro), gets mauled to an inch from death, and the rest of his company has no choice but to leave him behind. Their captain (a very busy this year Domhnall Gleeson) makes the call to trudge on ahead, charging Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to stay behind and give Glass a proper burial when the time comes. He remains along with Glass’s native son, who Fitzgerald soon murders before quickly taking off and leaving Glass for dead, believing the whole situation a fool’s errand to begin with. What follows is Glass’ journey back to health, and dedication to pursue Fitzgerald and make him pay for what he did.

Iñárritu establishes very quickly The Revenant‘s masterful stylistic approach, following up a ponderous, Malickian introduction to themes both spiritual and existential, with long takes during an initial ambush by a group of Native Americans looking for one of their own, a daughter kidnapped by whites; and these long takes make the forced mechanics of Birdman look like child’s play. Considering the subject matter The Revenant resembles some kind of hellish sequel to Malick’s The New World. Graphic violence, pyrotechnics, stampeding horses, and an endless barrage of arrows seeking out their targets fill cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki’s frame as he tracks the retreating company from the forest to the waters edge and into their boat. Later Glass’ mauling is also shot in one continuous take, with the CGI bear among the best special effects around, making up perhaps the most vital scene in the film. Throughout, Lubezki’s camera gets slathered with blood, dirt, sweat, fog, and breath when DiCaprio exhales, and the real time drudgery through endless muck and mire makes it inseparable from the elemental, the primal – the sheer physicality of nature – becoming a part of the world beyond the act of merely observing it, and setting in motion a conflict within Glass between the spiritual and physical, which must be reconciled if he is to transcend the primacy of his bloodlust.

DiCaprio literally becomes a force of nature throughout most of The Revenant‘s second act, which involves purely visual enactments of Glass’ survival instincts, including disemboweling a horse and crawling inside to evade a particularly harsh winter night. DiCaprio navigates these scenes with little to no dialogue, wearing his mortality on every inch of his sodden, blood-soaked, exhausted frame. It’s a great performance, even if not on the same level as when he played Jordan Belfort in Scorsese’s Wolf Of Wall Street, here trading intellect for sheer physicality, and he’s the reason why my eyes were glued to the screen through many of The Revenant’s protracted scenes of me-against-the-world survival.

Beyond DiCaprio’s performance, Iñárritu’s film excels with an unprecedented level of immersion. It’s one of those films that almost has to be seen in a theatre to get the full effect. Many are condemning it for its pretensions, dragging into the experience with them the director’s previous baggage, times when his reach exceeded his grasp, like the ridiculous Babel, the overwrought Biutiful, and the slave to technical exercise that was Birdman. Unlike those films The Revenant‘s extravagances are in aid of its themes, as opposed to themes being shoehorned into a desired formal strategy. I verbally exclaimed on several occasions, befuddlement at how certain scenes were filmed, and I can’t remember when I ever considered that a bad thing. The Revenant makes you feel that it is one with the world, it recognizes the struggle every human faces at one time, between heaven and Earth, and finds within this a kind of rebirth, while paying tribute to indigenous populations, who existed in harmony for thousands of years, until the white man came and destroyed everything through violence, greed and privilege. Granted this film might arrive at that conclusion with a bias towards depicting the evils, and subjugating its indigenous characters into requisite plot points, but we get there all the same, which is vastly more progressive than what normally winds up in mainstream auditoriums. The Revenant is an important and thrilling film, and it’s Iñárritu’s best work since 21 Grams over a decade ago, a testament to how new film technologies can be used to reflect a heightened form of realism.

The Verdict: Rave