This post was originally posted on one of my older blogs, but I’ve decided to bring it over here. As a result, some of the writing might sound a little bizarre if they were written in 2021.
The Revenant, the new film from Alejandro Iñárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, begins as it ends – vengeance. It’s the theme at the core of the story – how far could you go for retribution? It’s one that Iñárritu tackles brilliantly as his characters persevere against obstacles of both man and nature, which is as much the opponent here as any of the antagonistic characters. In the Montana wilderness, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is as likely to be killed by the subzero temperatures and inhospitable climate as he is by any vengeful Native Americans or Frenchmen. And that’s what makes the film so brilliant – by having this omnipresent threat hanging over every scene, The Revenant is a tense journey from start to finish.
From its opening moments, the film amps up the tension, as Glass and his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), hunt for pelts. The scene is a thing of beauty as tendrils of fog creep in over the water, reflecting a murky sunlight which peeks through the trees above. Although there is no significant danger present at this point, the setting makes you feel more than a little uneasy as Glass wades through the shallows. It is however, not long before real danger comes knocking, setting the pace for the rest of the film – which is an unrelenting barrage of obstacles for Glass to overcome. Our villain of the piece, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is fantastic, as Hardy pulls out a brilliant performance – highlighting the characters’ villainy while also making him understandable. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a sympathetic antagonist, but having been introduced to the world he lives in, surrounded by brutality as he is, his actions have a clear reason for happening. He doesn’t kill because he’s ‘the bad guy’, he’s the bad guy because he kills. And that’s a key distinction to make. The former doesn’t feature a deep character, his ‘evil-ness’ is reason enough for his actions, while in The Revenant, that is never the case. What starts out as a misunderstanding between Hawk and Fitzgerald quickly escalates into something much more horrific, and is the catalyst for the story to commence fully.
Meanwhile, the subplot of The Revenant, which features a Native American tribe known as the Arikara searching for the kidnapped Powaqa (Melow Nakehk’o), mirrors the main plot brilliantly but has enough difference to make it stand out on its own, furthering the excellence of the film. In this mirroring, the film combines its strands and underlines its dichotomies – the Native Americans are by turns, villain and saviour, while the vengeful are soothed and themselves saved through acts of kindness. That is one of the things that makes The Revenant so special – for all its bleakness, there is an underlying feeling of goodness in its characters, and its most clearly illustrated through Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) who argues for helping Glass and leaves food for the needy. They are the moments of light in an otherwise tonally dark film.
Massive credit also needs to be given to Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer for The Revenant, as his camerawork highlights the massiveness of the task that Glass faces. His panning shots of the wilderness prove its scale, especially when DiCaprio fades to nothing more than a dot in the face of his surroundings. In showing the scale of nature, Iñárritu and Lubezki also managed to underline the futility of humanity – as what is all-consuming for us is insignificant to nature herself. The Revenant calls to be watched on the big screen, where one can truly appreciate its oppressive beauty.