The Revenant is a beautiful yet barbaric frontier epic

January 15, 2016

Director Alejandro Gonzàlez Iñàrritu gives himself a chance to win his second Oscar in as many years with “The Revenant.” Iñàrritu’s Academy Award-winning movie “Birdman” displayed such originality, from its story of a washed up action-film actor’s attempt to resurrect his career via Broadway, to the movie appearing as if it was shot in a single take. “The Revenant” shows more innovation by Iñàrritu, but tackles a new beast entirely. Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his fellow fur trappers. Glass then goes on a vicious and dangerous path for revenge against the man who betrayed him, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).

The time period is around the early 1820s, when frontiersmen are expanding west due to the Louisiana Purchase. At that time, the main intention of frontiersmen was to gather pelts and other materials. Unfortunately, hunting on Native American tribal land comes with a price. In the opening scene, Hugh Glass and his troops are ambushed brutally. Iñàrritu does not shy away from blood and gore as arrows graphically slice through bodies and animals are slaughtered. However, it does not detract from the film, since it exudes such a rich authenticity. The scene reminds me of the opening to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” where American soldiers attempt to take the Normandy beach. The intensity so early on lets the audience know what they are in for.

Iñàrritu avoids portraying Native Americans as a savage culture and instead displays them as victims. Glass’ Native American wife and son are ruthlessly murdered. The movie quickly establishes a strong father-son relationship between Glass and his son Hawk that it makes Hawk’s murder startlingly devastating. Scenes also show Native American villages torn by frontiersmen and the daughter of a Native American chief stolen and brutalized. It has to make you wonder why Iñàrritu wanted to replay the tragedy of Native Americans in American history. It is skillfully shown, but perhaps only included to create sympathy for the main character.

Throughout the film, Iñàrritu captures beautiful landscapes. “The Revenant” was filmed in Alberta, Canada but since there wasn’t as much snow as needed, scenes were also shot in southern Argentina. There are shots of towering mountains that stretch for miles and vast snowy forests, untouched by civilization. Director Peter Jackson covered similar scenery in New Zealand for “The Lord of the Rings,” but the historical backdrop of “The Revenant” casts a more realistic shadow.

These great shots do not come without brutal conditions that the film crew had to endure. There were temperatures below zero and blizzards completely unaided by special effects. The film-making process was to be implemented in the most realistic fashion possible. That is how Iñàrritu wanted to do it, and he is known to be demanding in his film-making methods. Similarly, the physical limits are tested not only by fictional Hugh Glass but by Leonardo DiCaprio himself. Swimming in frozen rivers and stripping down to nothing in the middle of a snowstorm are just a few of the brutal circumstances he withstood. And if you think the ice on his beard isn’t real, guess again. Bring an extra layer to the movie, because you will feel the arctic cold DiCaprio suffers. It’s the basic human instincts that speak such volumes in “The Revenant,” and what lengths man will go to survive.

With this film, DiCaprio may finally win Best Actor from the Academy. Though there was little dialogue in his role, it was all the more powerful. I have never seen a character endure so much pain and battle against the brink of death as much as DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass. It’s knowing that DiCaprio suffered himself that makes it feel so genuine. His performance may even be compared to the likes of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, but perhaps that’s an exaggeration. The rest of the cast did a fine job as well, and they all were able to persevere under adverse conditions rather than Hollywood sunshine. Tom Hardy will probably snag an award as well, as his talent and performance surely doesn’t go unnoticed. Expect “The Revenant” to attract a great deal of attention at the Oscars this year.

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