The whole experience of watching “The Revenant” could be summed up in two words. Natural lighting. Director Alejandro G. Innaritu borrowed God’s light with the aid of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and made a movie that will be discussed in film schools for years to come. “The Revenant,” his frontier revenge tale starring Leonardo DiCaprio is set against the elements and transforms his already mastery of cinema high art into science. The Mexican-born director is a modern warlock, a creative genius and pretty much, a show-off.
He kicks off the movie Terrence Malick-style, with the camera trained lowly on a flooded terrain, documenting the bountiful landscape, as hired tracker Hugh Glass and his half-Indian son hunt for food while the expedition party relaxes by the river. Then, almost instantly, Innaritu breaks the silence with a thrilling, eye-level, continuous shot as Indians crash the party and kills them “white” folks, duplicating a feat he did a year ago in “Birdman,” not in length, but in terms of synchronized madness. It is a symphony of glamorous massacre. One arrow after another towards a full-blown blitz. The heavenly score by Sakamoto Ryuichi and Alva Noto makes you worry none of them would come out of there alive.
The few that survived, some of them with arrows sticking out of their bodies, drift slowly down the river, with rifles still on guard. And as they ponder on their recent harrowing ordeal, we are given a who’s who of the lot: fair-minded leader Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), hard-assed John “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and young, frontier break-in Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). This time, Innaritu channels Werner Herzog, as the survivors rethink their possible course of action while the characters clash, decide on a mountainside trail towards the safety of their camp, some hundred miles away. But, not before Glass gets severely attacked by a bear, that will leave him inches of death, and to only recuperate from it by drawing strength from his wife’s memories and in witnessing the murder of his son, which kept him awake and hungry for revenge. Thus, least to say, Glass became, drum roll, “The Revenant.”
This bear attack. Perhaps, the other two words that could sum up this movie. The CG-bear that Leonardo DiCaprio couldn’t do without. A frighteningly 5-minute scene of man versus beast at its most brutal. Lou Ferrigno fought a bear once in a TV episode of the “Hulk.” But, not like this. This is pure, visceral, masochistic stuff. And honest to God, if you didn’t squirm at any time during which Leo got pounded, bitten, grated, and humiliated by the bear, there is something oddly wrong with you. But, its not only the ursine threat that Glass encounters in the movie. Michael Punke’s novel, from which Innaritu and Michael L. Smith based the screenplay from, painted the timeline as a harsh time to have existed and its hero as a survivalist of mythic proportions. So, Inarritu condemns Glass to a second life of trying to survive charging Indian hunters, battle an angry winter where he needed to cut open a horse’s belly to warm himself and further on, feed on uncooked fish. That, if he did get his revenge in the end, would be much, much sweeter having been served from the cold.
In retrospect, it’s a simple, straight premise. A revenge tale like any other revenge tales and they are very prominent in Western movies and literature. A lawless age of man where killing was rampant, and naturally, this revenge gig is sort of, the in-thing in those days. And Innaritu takes his revenge tale far beyond its limits, pushing Leonardo DiCaprio to give it his all as Glass. The extremities were there and he welcomed it, embraced it like he would the elusive trophy. He begged for it and Innaritu gladly obliged. It is by far, one of the most moving stories of a role finally rewarding an actor the accolade that he deserves. DiCaprio’s Glass becomes a benchmark of sorts for actors who have been perennially on the chase for glory.
The last scene shows Glass in the blistering winter, maybe dying from the cold, sees a vision of his dead wife. Could it be that his fate has already been written? And DiCaprio looks straight at us as if to say, I came back from the dead and this is nothing. I’ve already won. Then, Innaritu fades to black with the sound of whispering breath.