Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant may be overwhelmingly brutal, but it also proves both contemplative and beautiful, a visceral experience well-deserving of its Best Picture nomination.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in Oscar-nominated performances, The Revenant is a stunning achievement of historical immersion. Both actors are enveloped within the hardened trappers Hugh Glass and John Fitzgerald, DiCaprio nailing the indomitable will of Glass, and Hardy performing one of his trademark disappearing acts into the combative and selfish Fitzgerald. DiCaprio sells the astonishing physical endurance of the story at hand with his physical commitment, hurling himself into frigid conditions with a suicidal abandon we usually only see from the likes of Tom Cruise, while Hardy nails a near unintelligible dialect that feels distinctly American yet appropriately alien.
Their performances, particularly DiCaprio’s, are accentuated by Iñárritu’s bold decision to film on location in the mountains of Canada and Argentina. For a film in which thematic and narrative weight rests in the parallel struggles of man vs. man and man vs. nature, the obvious physical toll of the production lends a tangible sense of realism to The Revenant that forces the audience into the mindset of the men that populate its historical setting.
The wilderness cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki also works to deepen the narrative, his long, smooth shots filmed with natural lighting hint at a wealth of spiritual and moral significance buried beneath a deceptively straightforward story of survival and revenge. Brutal attacks by wildlife, a tense skirmish between trappers and Arikara Native Americans, and a wolf pack harassing a herd of buffalo are all framed in a manner that reflects narrative purity. Opening on what appears to be a bubbling brook, Lubezki’s camera moves with hunters through the woods as the water repeatedly changes direction, the audience’s perspective on the setting continually reshaped in a decidedly Malick-esque fashion.
In a certain respect, this opening shot serves as a microcosm of the main thematic thrust of The Revenant: humans struggle alone in the Louisiana Purchase, continuously forged and re-forged by the unforgiving brutality of both nature and their fellow kind. Ideals matter little in the wilderness. Practicality and emotional instinct drive these men to their respective ends.
The Revenant is at its best when it fully embraces the rich symbolism that undergirds superficially simple conflicts of man against both man and nature, such as a hauntingly filmed interlude in the solitary wreckage of a chapel, a dilapidated bell ringing defiantly against the wasteland. The more squeamish might find The Revenant overwhelming in the constant oppression of nature, human and animal alike, and the ending provides far more questions than answers, but Iñárritu’s western is a unique cinematic achievement that stands as one of the finer films of 2015.