The Revenant: a pure, visceral experience

This is probably the closest DiCaprio has come to delivering an "Oscar-worthy" performance.

Updated - February 26, 2016 12:04 pm IST

Published - February 25, 2016 08:17 am IST

A still from 'The Revenant'.

A still from 'The Revenant'.

There is a sense of wonder in the way the vast, virgin and treacherous Dakota Territory unravels in Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant . Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki films frosted leaves, gushing mountainous river and the sighting of a herd of bisons on a snowfield like a child experiencing the world for the first time. This is after all, about mountain men in 1820s travelling in territories where no human — or rather civilisation — have set foot on.

The film follows Hugh Glass, an American explorer who during in his expedition with his band of fur hunters gets mauled by a grizzly bear. Glass is severely wounded and as the weather conditions worsen, he’s abandoned by his own men. The story is about his survival.

Hugh Glass is part of American folklore legend and besides the bear incident, being abandoned by his own men and his eventual survival, the other aspects of story are fictional. Inarritu, like Quentin Tarantino, who made the other wintry Western this year other than his two earlier films Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds , uses historical fiction to make a political statement. He picks up the first chapter in American history of European immigrants’ clash with native Indians that resulted in wiping off of indigenous people, the first assault of capitalism on nature.

Rating: 4 Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson, Paul Anderson, Weel Poulter, Forrest Goodluck Run time: 156 mins Story: A frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team.

Another film that comes to mind is James Cameron’s visually path-breaking, Avatar that was an allegory to the American settlers’ wars with the Indians. The message in the Mexican auteur, Inarritu’s film who has successfully made a transition to making Oscar worthy blockbusters, is broadly the same.

But in terms of filmmaking, they are vastly different. Unlike Avatar or for that matter most of the CGI-heavy stuff we consume today, The Revenant goes to the other extreme in order to achieve uncompromising realism: be it its lead actor eating raw bison liver or the decision to shoot in under -25 degrees in real locations such as snowy terrains of Argentina and Canada that resulted in a part of the crew leaving the film unable to work in the harsh weather conditions. Avatar itself used the American-imperialist-going-native trope as with Dances with Wolves (1990). While Avatar was evidently conceived from an American point of view — that exoticises natives and their land, Inarritu’s film is far more complex in terms of plot and characterisations.

This is a Man vs Wild survival drama, a revenge saga and an existential journey, besides its artistic politicking. And at times, you feel it is too much to meld into a coherent film. Viewers looking for an overall emotional impact may be disappointed. It works not so much as a movie with a message but as a pure, visceral experience.

DiCaprio’s daredevilry as an actor and the extreme conditions with which the film has been made has made The Revenant this year’s biggest Oscar special movie event. That may have irked the inner cynics within fans of Inarritu, who is somewhat an iconoclast. But these scenes really are groundbreaking, each beat and nuance executed with supreme cinematic control – the scene where Glass escapes from the French and falls off a cliff with his horse is a heart-stopper.

The Revenant is a very visual film, a technical marvel and a feast to the senses. Inarritu’s long-time collaborator, Lubezki has always brought out the holistic, spiritual soul of his films. Here he meditates on the wilderness, filming in natural light in magic hours and giving us some of the most stunning images we have seen in the movies in the recent past. Come February 28, Lubezki may just become the first cinematographer in film history to win three consecutive Academy awards — he won the last two for Birdman and Gravity .

And DiCaprio does his darndest to make us keep watching — this is probably the closest he has come to delivering an “Oscar-worthy” performance. But in terms of the character minus the physical hardship he had to endure, this isn’t a new zone for the actor. It is a classic DiCaprio role. Like some of his previous roles, Hugh Glass is a man with a troubled past: a noir, Western hero. He is an outsider amongst his men. He isn’t with the natives either. He is somewhere in between. He has hallucinatory fever-dream visions of his dead wife — think Inception , Shutter Island . The word ‘revenant’ that means one who is back from the dead now makes sense.

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