Film Review: ‘The Revenant’ – A Meditation in Agony

Focus on the breath. An introductory lesson into meditation will teach you to become aware of the process of breathing, to notice where you feel the breath most distinctly, whether it be at the tip of your nose, the rising and falling of your abdomen, or in the case of The Revenant, the intense searing pain at your throat.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of the Oscar-winning Birdman, returns one year later with his based-on-true-events rollercoaster of pain that is The Revenant. The lucky rider of that rollercoaster is Leonardo DiCaprio, in the role of Hugh Glass the fur trapper, who battles a Native American tribe, a 200 kilo grizzly bear and worst of all, a cold Montanan winter in one of the most raw revenge stories ever seen on screen.

The film opens to Glass and his fellow trappers falling prey to a Pawnee ambush. Arrows, axes and gun powder fly through the shot at every angle as the camera, along with everyone else who is still alive, runs through ice cold water to safety. Among those left are Glass, his son Hawk, and Tom Hardy’s character Fitzgerald: a strikingly malevolent man from first glance onwards. Hardy’s portrait of Fitzgerald is that of a ragtag hyena, battle-scarred, opportunistic and cunning; but most of all, instantly despicable.

It isn’t long before Glass finds himself once again in danger, this time manifested in the form of a female grizzly bear intent on defending her cubs. The savage battle that ensues cannot be understated with Glass (and DiCaprio) being flipped, slashed, mauled, and as some have speculated, raped by the great 30 stone beast. One gun shot and multiple knife wounds later two things are sure: the bear is dead, and Glass’s thirst for survival cannot be questioned. This constant grip to life is effectively displayed throughout the film via his continuous breath, ranging from spit hurling gasps to the weak, pitiful rattle of a dying man.

After being left for dead by his men and witnessing his son’s brutal murder at the hands of Hardy’s Fitzgerald, Glass’s thirst for survival morphs into something much more powerful: a thirst for revenge. It is this revenge that compels him to walk, or stumble, hundreds of miles through frozen waters and over mountains to find the man that killed his son.

DiCaprio’s performance in this film is key to why it works. Without it, everything would largely be the same, minus the audience believing every wince, every groan and every scream of pain that the character of Glass endures. Any other man would have given up during that bear attack; any other man would have welcomed death in the face of excruciating pain; and almost any other actor could not convincingly portray the one man that did not. This is largely down to the fact that DiCaprio was not acting, or more not pretending, as he, like Glass, did in fact go through many of these hardships during filming. The one obvious exception being that he didn’t really fight a bear to the death, as many viewers who wait to read “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” at the end of the credits will be glad to hear. This was however a small triumph of CGI, with the grizzly’s mass and power shaking the theatre speakers with some might. This is the only exception, as DiCaprio did really eat raw liver, enter freezing waters and crawl into a dead horse carcass for warmth. If this isn’t enough to win an Oscar, then I doubt anyone knows what is.

The film’s close-up, bare-bone theme is sometimes betrayed by Emmanuel Lubezki’s magical cinematography, which reflects nature’s elegant beauty and indeed spirituality. In the real world of the 19th century however, as proven by the film’s characters and indeed actors, winter life in Montana and South Dakota is nowhere near elegant. This stark juxtaposition is extremely effective at reminding the viewer that nature, and it’s apparent beauty, are not our friends. Shots of crisp snow and glistening rivers are quickly intruded on by DiCaprio’s bloodied, shaking body. Daydreams of our next skiing holiday quickly intruded on by nightmares of freezing to death.

This is in essence the magic of The Revenant; not only are the character of Glass and DiCaprio as an actor suffering this torture, but we as an audience are too; the immersion is not that of warm water, but an ice bath. This does raise the question to whether we as an audience enjoy our viewing experience, and some definitely will not, but thanks to the stellar performances and the beautiful yet raw cinematography, The Revenant serves as a guided mediation in agony.

By Tom Hyde

The Verse Staff

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