THE REVENANT (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2016)
They said revenge is a dish best served cold, and in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's latest film, Leonardo DiCaprio takes that philosophy all too literally.
"The Revenant" is inspired by the true events surrounding 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass, who is left to die in the freezing wilderness after being viciously attacked by a bear. While not his best performance, DiCaprio churns out a forceful turn as Glass, unleashing fury when needed be, and showing restraint in moments of solemnity.
Tom Hardy, on the other hand is downright wicked as fellow fur trapper John Fitzgerald, delivering a praise-worthy performance that hails among his best screen personas. Every snarl, every stare comes like a death blow, and you believe he will really kill you without hesitation.
Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter also render effective supporting performances as Captain Andrew Henry and young trapper Jim Bridger, respectively. Gleeson is far away now from his good boy image in "About Time," while Poulter is not the goofy teen anymore from "We're the Millers." I guess the wild really brings out the beast in every man.
Iñárritu has no doubt mounted a larger-than-life survival revenge epic that puts the viewer right in Glass' shoes, right up there in the snowy mountains where danger lurks at every turn. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once again renders one heart-stopping shot after another. Filmed only with natural light, Lubezki paints a backdrop of beauty amid a foreground of unrelenting horror, and the irony could not be more vividly told. Chunks of ice swim placidly as DiCaprio figures out his own survival; clouds move in slow motion behind the towering, ominous trees; a daring daytime Indian raid on Glass' company is intensely shot in close range for chilling effect, while the beautiful waters are awash with blood.
Although mostly a tale of Glass' survival and ultimate revenge, the film references the tumultuous era of warring Indian tribes, and the ultimate slaughter of countless natives at the hands of foreigners. In macro terms, "The Revenant" exposes the horrors of human nature, especially during unjust times, but in the end, no act of cruelty will go unpunished. Just ask the French pelt hunters.
The killing of Glass' son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) signifies the loss of innocence in the film, where all matters of kindness are repealed with bloodlust. The other younger character, Bridger experiences a crisis of conscience, too midway through the film, but because it is a grown-up world, adults have the power, and young Bridger is forced to grow up as well as the plot progresses.
"The Revenant" is thrilling, mesmerizing and highly-involving, which is an an amazing feat for Iñárritu who managed to coordinate all the chaos and turn it into a terrifyingly beautiful portrait of the wild west. However, Iñárritu has created more compelling dramas than this one, and in his attempt to take on an optimistic approach for possibly the first time, the film stumbles into a cat-and-mouse revenge plot in the end. Given that 'The Revenant" is enormously more exciting than the historical facts (it was based on Michael Punke's 2002 novel of the same name, but yes, Glass was actually mauled by a bear. That part is true), the storytelling still lacks emotional punch. And far worse, he looks like he is going for a Terrence Malick-style exploration of the metaphysical, with all the voice-overs and longings for the past. To his credit, both he and Malick share the same cinematographer, so maybe that's that. Maybe.
Make no mistake, "The Revenant" is still a powerful journey of survival, just not Iñárritu's best. For maximum gut-wrenching drama, opt for "Amores Perros." For sheer ingenuity, "Birdman" takes the cake.