Not long into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” you begin to feel the intense chill of the freezing Missouri wilderness. A film that is based on true events, we follow the journeyings of Hugh Glass, a scout for an American trapping company. Set in frontier land America, during the dead of winter, “The Revenant” never ceases to remind you just how cold everybody in the film is. A brisk, wintery stroll this is not; it’s a grueling trudge through ice, snow, water, and the elements of nature.
Leonardo DiCaprio turns in what could be the finest acting job of his career as the indomitable Hugh Glass. His character, we learn, has a son that is half Native American from his marriage to a Pawnee woman. This is one of the many things that draws the ire of his crew mate, John Fitzgerald, who is played by the ever-imposing Tom Hardy. The two square off at the beginning of the movie with words, Fitzgerald constantly resentful that Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) trusts Glass’ wilderness instincts instead of his own. The company is forced to abandon their crude settlement after they are ambushed by the vengeful Arikara tribe, who mercilessly kill much of their crew, while making off with a number of the animal pelts they had worked so hard to acquire. As the party regroups and moves on, Fitzgerald continues to yowl about their lost pelt profits and continues to loudly voice his mistrust of Glass’ navigational skills. He is a truly unlikable character, solely selfish and out for his own profit.
Early one morning as Glass is out on a routine solo scouting mission, he is assaulted by a gigantic grizzly bear. Typically in a sequence like this, most filmmakers elect to utilize creative camera angles and other tricks to imply to the audience that something grisly (pun partially intended) is going on without showing too much gore. But in “The Revenant,” we see every excruciating scratch and bite in grotesque detail, as Glass gets torn apart by this bear. Glass, through sheer physical will, is able to eventually get off a gunshot, taking his Bowie knife to the bear and killing it. He sustains what appear to be fatal injuries and is later left to the care of his son Hawk, a young fellow trapper named Bridger, and Fitzgerald. They’re tasked with seeing the heavily wounded man through until his death before rejoining the rest of the group. Fitzgerald, however, grows impatient and decides to take matters into his own hands, killing Glass’ son and attempting to bury the injured man alive. However, Glass survives this premature burial and spends the second half of the film focused solely on survival, as DiCaprio’s character crawls, slogs, floats, and grinds his way back from the dead.
Every ounce of production excellence shines through in this glorious film. The wound makeup is astounding; every gash we see on DiCaprio’s body feels real and believable, and I could feel myself getting chills as I absorbed through my eyes just how cold everything was. It helps that every scene is shot on location, in the real, actual cold. Every grimace DiCaprio makes as he jumps into icy water or plows through piles of snow, is real. He may not have had to “act” his way through this one; he lived it. I found that it was very convincing.
I also just wanted to take this moment to talk about the filming process itself. We learned before the film released that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Iñárritu decided to film every shot with only natural light. In films, most of the time, you’ve got external lights that help keep the scenes more visible and aid the cameraman in their process. In this film, the camera crews relied only on the sun and campfires/burning torches for lighting. We see that this was quite the achievement. The film is vivid and clear, bringing to sheer and utter focus the brutality of man vs. nature, and man vs. man. Lubezki's use of light is a master class in the use of lighting. Combined with Iñárritu’s insistence on filming in so many exterior locations, the result is a gritty, realistic image that completely sells this haunting story. Combining absolutely masterful camerawork with the primal acting of DiCaprio and Hardy, “The Revenant” is an absolute triumph in filmmaking technique.