The Revenant review – gut-churningly brutal, beautiful
Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new movie pitches Leonardo DiCaprio against nature, bears and Tom Hardy in a tale of revenge, retribution and primal violence
Friday 4 December 2015 21.00 GMT
t’s man versus bear. And bear wins. Or does it? Early reports of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s intestine-straighteningly brutal and beautiful new western thriller The Revenant have understandably focused on one quite extraordinary scene. Nineteenth-century fur trapper and frontiersman Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, encounters some bear cubs in an eerily quiet forest and then hears the snuffly-wet sound of their parent behind him, a grownup grizzly who has gained a broadly correct impression of Glass’s overall intentions. The ensuing scene is one of horrifyingly primal violence, a brilliantly conceived CGI-reality cluster, during which I clenched into a whimperingly foetal ball so tight that afterwards I practically had to be rolled out of the cinema auditorium.
The immersion and immediacy of that confrontation reminded me of the moment in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when moviegoers go to the sensory-enhanced “feelies” and watch a sex scene on a bearskin rug. They feel every bear hair. So could I, and I also felt every droplet of bear spittle, every serration of tooth, and I understood what it feels like when parts of your ribcage are exposed to fresh air and light rain
Some have described it as a rape scene. It isn’t. But it’s about power, fear and rage, and this moment, quite as much as the human duplicity that follows, is the driving force for this film’s theme, commoner in the movies than real life: revenge, revenge against men and maybe a kind of revenge against nature. Screenwriter Mark L Smith has worked partly from the 2002 novel by Michael Punke, and partly from the real-life story that itself inspired the book: the adventures of Hugh Glass, a Wyoming mountain man who survived a bear-mauling and went on an incredible odyssey to track down the two men who abandoned him to die. This story fictionalises and intensifies his personal circumstances and payback motivation.
Glass has joined other civilian privateers engaged in a US military expedition led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) along the Missouri river to establish a lucrative fur-trapping base. Glass and the others are set upon by tribesmen-warriors in an electrifying and terrifying sequence, in which warning cries are silenced by the sibilant arrival of an arrow in the throat. Glass, an experienced tracker, guides the terrified survivors’ retreat across country, where he is mauled by the bear, and two men are detailed and promised extra pay to look after him: young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy with pop-eyed, truculent malevolence. Once left alone with their charge, they leave Glass to die in agony and figure on returning to base to pick up their extra pay with a fine tale about giving him a Christian burial. But they reckon without Glass’s fanatical will to survive.
Generally, immersive movies enclose, they put you inside, they dunk you down into what it is supposed to feel like. Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki do the opposite: they expose you to the elements. You are out in a piercingly painful cold, under an endless, pitiless sky. This is not an immersion that feels like a sensual surrender; it’s closer to having your skin peeled. The images that the movie conjures are ones of staggering, crystalline beauty: gasp-inducing landscapes and beautifully wrought closeups, such as the leaves in bulbous freezing mounds, and a tiny crescent moon, all unsentimentally rendered. But there is also something hallucinatory and unwholesome about these images, as if hunger and pain has brought Glass to the secularised state of a medieval saint tormented with visions. Poignantly, he mimes shooting distant moose with a tree branch instead of a rifle, and when he suddenly comes across a vast plain full of bison, it’s unclear for a second if he is imagining things. A ruined church looks like a miraculous example of cave painting.
The Revenant recalls Ford’s The Searchers and modifies its themes of tribal and sexual transgression and its cruel invocation of scalping; the warriors who attack at first are enraged at the kidnap of a Native American woman, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o). At other times, Iñárritu appears to be inspired by Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, with the visions of imperial greed and the vast river in full flood – or maybe his documentary Grizzly Man, in which the grim-faced Herzog famously listened on his headphones to the sound of someone being mauled to death. There is arguably something of Altman in the wintry frontier terrain and certainly a Malickian weightlessness in some of Glass’s dreams of his wife. But what is so distinctive about this Iñárritu picture is its unitary control and its fluency: no matter how extended, the film’s tense story is under the director’s complete control and he unspools great meandering, bravura travelling shots to tell it: not dissimilar, in some ways, to his previous picture, Birdman. The movie is as thrilling and painful as a sheet of ice held to the skin.
DRAGONMichael Punke / The Revenant
The Revenant review – gut-churningly brutal, beautiful
DE OTROS MUNDOS
Michael Punke / Revenant / La storia vera di Hugh Glass e della sua vendetta