WARNING: Spoilers and book references. You’ve been warned, thoroughly.
What can be said on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant that hasn’t been said already? It’s a true tour de force, a testament to the director’s vision and perseverance and to the equally stringent standards of his crew; and also a fine story to boot. To anyone who thinks Birdman (Or the unexpected virtue of pretentious subtitles and pointless side-character arcs) was better, you’re wrong.
Based on the real-life exploits of Hugh Glass, and more principally on the eponymous novel by Michael Punke (2002), The Revenant tells the story of an American frontiersman who, as a trapper for The Rocky Mountain Fur Company, served as one of General Ashley’s Hundred alongside famous pioneers such as Jim Bridger and Jedidiah Smith- men of various, but generally humble, origins, many of whom would go on to be figures of frontier fame and legend in their own right.
In 1823 Glass joined the company’s ill-fated expedition into Missouri under Captain William Henry. This mission was beset by with misfortune from the start, with the region’s Arikara Indians launching frequent raids upon the trapper companies, stealing their horses and supplies and forcing them to make a gruelling journey back to Fort Henry on the Missouri. Whilst hunting for the party, Glass was surprised by a grizzly bear, sustained terrible injuries and had to be left behind with two other trappers: Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald.
Judging Glass terminal, and afraid of being scouted by Arikara hunting parties, the two men abandoned Glass, leaving him without his gear. Miraculously, Glass came to and managed despite all odds to crawl 200 miles to the nearest American settlement before travelling north once again and confronting the men who had deserted him.
Described by many of the cast and crew as a test of survival within itself, the filming of The Revenant seems to have had almost as travailed a story behind it as that it depicts. After the rights to the novel were obtained the project passed hands between a whole series of directors who tried and failed to come up with a full plan for filming.
At one time, Park Chan-Wook of Oldboy fame took the helm, with Samuel L. Jackson on the cards for Glass. That certainly would have been something, but DiCaprio is a much neater fit for the muted and taciturn Glass- we’ve all seen what happens when Jackson’s given a stoic character. Later, John Hillcoat of The Road was given the reigns and was in talks with Christian Bale on taking the lead before Hillcoat too, dropped the project. Iñárritu was signed in 2011, but the project had to be put on hold until Birdman was wrapped in 2013.
Despite disputes over funding, Iñárritu insisted the film be shot on-location and without the use of CGI: “If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit.” He insisted that the film be shot entirely with natural lighting, meaning shoots could last for only a few hours in the height of Autumn and Winter. Principal photography alone took over 10 months to complete and many of the cast and crew quit over the length and inhospitable conditions of the shooting process.
DiCaprio himself had to endure a panoply of uniquely challenging shoots, including, but not limited to, a scene where he devoured a clump of raw bison meat which later gave him gastroenteritis: “I can name 30 or more sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I had to] endure freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.” The Revenant’s budget constantly inflated, by July it had reached $90 million, and by the time the film was wrapped this had risen to $135 million.
The Revenant sets its eerie, nightmarish tone from the very opening. After the preamble flashback/dream sequence in which we see flashes from Glass’s past, we move to Glass and his half-native son Hawk hunting for elk whilst, nearby, a company of nervy trappers hasten to take stock of their cache of pelts in a sullen forest of willow trees. The source of their apprehension is then made perfectly plain as suddenly, a naked lacerated captive appears at the edge of the copse, and barely manages to sound a word of warning before being felled by a flurry of arrows. Suddenly, the camp is under attack from a war party of decidedly hostile Arikara Indians.
The ensuing skirmish is almost certainly one of the best captured battles of cinematic history: as arrows, not so much whistle as screech past with resounding thwacks, inflicting horrible casualties and injuries on the terrified trappers, utter carnage reigns as howling braves charge into the camp and the grizzled but shaken trappers meet them in a palpable frenzy of dismemberment and viscera, desperately beating, stabbing and kicking their way back upon their boat with what few packs of furs they can grab. What makes this scene infinitely more impressive on a cinematographic level is that it is all captured in one, single, flowing shot.
I cannot even begin to think how much work it must have taken to arrange and choreograph this scene into its perfect spontaneity; it almost makes the opening of Saving Private Ryan seem straightforward by comparison, it’s that good. The natural lighting works beautifully, with yapping braves riding out of the mist like vengeful spirits and the musket fire casting a frightful glare amidst the gloom; it seems for all the world as though the country itself is repelling these hapless foreign interlopers.
A scene later, the shaken survivors huddle in their boat scanning the murky shores, primed for further native attacks, apprehensive of their next move as they drift down the river in a suffocating mist; it’s a spectacle that could’ve come straight out of Heart of Darkness or Aguirre.
If the film does falter in areas, it would be that many of the side characters do not receive the full fleshing out they receive throughout the novel, yet Will Pouter and Tom Hardy nevertheless put in strong support as a rookie Jim Bridger and the utterly mercenary Fitzgerald. Hardy makes for a brilliant antagonist in all but one unfortunate respect; while the slack drawl he affects sounds authentic to the crooked, hardboiled trapper, and his physicality as fantastic as ever, the fact remains that he’s completely incomprehensible. It’s like he’s been taking elocution lessons from Sylvester Stallone.
Thankfully, the film is incredibly physically driven and you’ll rarely fail to get the gist of what’s occurring in the action. In fact, the lack of dialogue makes the film in many ways that much more ingenious and mesmerising, as the audience, much like the taciturn frontiersmen themselves, must be constantly on the lookout to observe threats, dangers and opportunities in their beautiful but desolate surroundings. The trappers speak sparingly as words waste valuable energy and could easily get them killed by alerting hostile natives to their presence; instead we must read the characters’ fears, hopes and sufferings upon their faces.
No bones about it however, this is DiCaprio’s film and he totally commands whichever scene he’s in, even when being pulled apart by a grizzly. As Glass, a man who suffers just about every hardship the world can think to throw at him, and yet, somehow, endures, the sheer range of performance the film requires from him is extraordinary. It’s a testament to DiCaprio’s tenacity and borderline-insane commitment to the role that he never fails to be completely convincing. It’s clear that Iñárritu put DiCaprio through hell to make this film and it really shows: Glass’s every motion, every grunt, is a painful struggle of will over broken flesh and bones.
From wrestling for dear life against the grizzly as his ribs crunch sickeningly beneath her, to frothing half-mad with delirium and fever, scratching his way out of his own grave, cauterising a hole in his neck with gunpowder and the final frenzied brawl in the snow, DiCaprio gives more of himself here than a great many actors are called upon to give in the entirety of their careers. Though perhaps not as perfectly contrived a role for DiCaprio as his almost peerless performances as Howard Hughes or Frank Abignale, there is no denying the sheer conviction he brings to Glass: a steely, maniacal determination that can wrest a man past the brink of death itself.
If it’s Oscar bait, it’s the carte blanche of Oscar bait and I’d definitely recommend hitting it up once or thrice. Punke’s novel is also a great lark, combining the Glass’s ceaseless struggles in the film with a lot more wry humour than a reader might expect after having watched the film. You may be shocked to realise that what really drove Hugh Glass to pursue Fitzgerald and Bridger across hundreds of miles of hostile wilderness with half his body in tatters, was not an entirely fictional murdered son but rather a stubborn, rather insane determination to have his stolen rifle returned to him. Hugh Glass was perhaps not the sympathetic figure painted by Iñárritu, but by all accounts he had an astounding life and The Revenant is a fine tribute to his ilk of ridiculously hardy frontiersmen; even if their enterprises in the American heartland have had their share of controversy.
The alterations from novel to script generally compliment the film and add some interesting touches, the most significant of course being the addition of Glass’s son Hawk (Forest Goodluck). Though a sadly short-lived character, Hawk adds a new dimension to Glass’s relationship to the native tribes and the surrounding country, factors which certainly helped Glass survive. Glass had indeed lived amongst Pawnee Indians for some years before joining the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, after having escaped from buccaneers [the man did just about everything] and learned much of his bush craft and survival skills from them; he’s also thought to have taken a Pawnee wife.
Hawk, and Hawk’s (presumably dead) mother also serve as an effective counterpoint to the savagery of the Arikara, as in Glass’s fevered dreams their tribe appears to have been massacred by colonial soldiers. If nothing else, Hawk is certainly a far better motivation for Glass’s bloody revenge than the need to get a prized rifle back. Similarly, the Arikara chief Elk Dog (Duane Howard) is given additional purpose in his persecution of the frontiersmen as he hunts for his adducted daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nehehk’o).
To Iñárritu’s particular credit, his Revenant certainly doesn’t shy away from prosperity’s conflicted view of these pioneers and their mercurial native adversaries. Whilst the Arikara, as seen from the eyes of the trappers appear often as a dangerous, alien and mercilessly savage presence in their trade, the westerners are themselves seldom ready to turn the other cheek: Fitzgerald thinks nothing of murdering Hawk in front of Glass, and likewise, the generous lone Sioux who feeds Glass from his own catch and tends his horribly infected wounds meets a horrible fate at the hands of nearby French trappers.
All in all, the natives and frontiersmen alike are very much a product of the cruel reality of their generally short lives, and it is the singular achievement of both the novel and film that life on the frontier is captured in all its stark savagery rather than romanticised or excused. For all that savagery, the wilderness of the Northern Plains is still breathtakingly beautiful, and it is the mark of a filmmaker with Iñárritu’s calibre and perseverance that the cinematography is never less than stunning. It truly deserves every Oscar it can snap up, and I’m sure there’ll be many.