The word masterpiece is often thrown around far too much by critics, and I am guilty of doing it. But when a film washes over you like ‘The Revenant’; when the image merges with the words so perfectly; when the director and actors boldly explore their subject matter with an honesty that is striking, the word masterpiece is all that comes to mind. So good on so many levels ‘The Revenant’ reminds us that cinema is a visual medium first and foremost, and that dialogue is not necessary for great cinema. It can be, but an image and the performance of the actor can more than make a film great.
With ‘The Revenant’, Oscar winner Alejandro Inarritu connects on a near spiritual level with actor Leonardo Di Caprio to give us the finest work of both artists careers, they are both extraordinary, and Inarritu should get nominated, if not win, for an Academy Award for Best Director, while Di Caprio should finally win his first Award for Best Actor.
It is 1823, the land is still unsettled, and money is made by men in the wilderness trapping for furs and pelts. Pristine, stunning, yet a deadly force to be reckoned with, the wilderness is like a supporting character in the film, untouched, and mysterious. It is never as clean as it is in the opening sequences, the rest of the picture bathed in blood and violence.
Hugh Glass (Di Caprio) traps with his young son,a Native boy he loves, and the company they have hired themselves out to. Glass is the chief scout, and seems to lead them directly into a vicious and terrible attack by Indians that claims thirty-three of their group. Moving downriver, Glass moves into the forest to scout, and is attacked by a mother grizzly bear protecting her cubs. Attacked and mauled by a ferocious bear doing what nature has implanted her to do, he is torn to piece and left for dead by one of his friends. The attack, now infamous is one of the most visceral and raw sequences in modern cinema, brutal, swift, and agonizing while we are seeing it happen. The damage done to the human body by a bear can be astounding, and we see it in all its glory here on the big screen.
Not expected to live, yet somehow still alive, Glass is left behind by the group, the Captain appointing two men to stay behind and see him through to his death and then give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) has other plans. Angered that his money-making chances have been ruined, he lashes out at Glass by murdering his son, and leaving the wounded man for dead.
Seething with rage, the acts of betrayal feeding his will to survive, Glass, forces himself to survive, to live, to crawl back to the place he knows Fitzgerald will be. Glass crawls, then walks, more than two hundred miles to exact his revenge on the man who betrayed him. Overcoming what must be extraordinary pain, the elements, and constant threat of Indian attacks, he moves forward, relentlessly doing whatever it takes to survive, to live the night through and move a step closer to Fitzgerald.
DiCaprio gives the finest performance of his career –the year’s best performance for sure — and one of the great physical performances in the history of the cinema. Watch his face, his eyes, growing colder and meaner as we see watch his punished body come back from the dead in what is surely a miracle of survival. Incidentally, ‘The Revenant’ means back from the dead or after a long absence, and though DiCaprio often appears ghost-like moving through the wilderness, his character is very much alive, and focused in every way on getting back.
Once again Inarritu submerges his audience in a world not experienced before, as he did with his cast in Birdman (2014) and Babel (2006). Aided by two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lebezki, who could win his third consecutive Oscar, they bring the world to life around the actors, like Antonioni, making the wilderness and the ferocity of it a secondary character.
Enough cannot be said about the performance of DiCaprio, who for long periods of time in the film says nothing, throwing himself into the performance with an intensity we saw in his previous work such as The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Seething with rage at the injustice done to him, at the killing of his innocent son, his rage turns to ice-cold fury as he moves through the forest, Willard like, on his way to the Kurtz like Fitzgerald, who has impacted his world, and he will not be denied justice. It is an astounding performance from a gifted actor who will win his first Oscar for the work.
Tom Hardy is superb as Fitzgerald, the icy trapper who commits murder with an ease that is alarmingly vicious. It is a powerful performance of a man who cares for nothing but himself and his own desires, a sociopath unleashed in the wilderness.
‘The Revenant’ is a stunning work of art, dark and visceral, its images brilliant, each one perfection, and acted brilliantly by the cast. Though a simple story, the simplicity is deceptive as this is about much more than mere triumph of the human spirit because this human spirit is damaged in every way: emotional and spiritual. Easily among the finest movies to have released this year and this decade.