When I was in college, I took a trip to Washington, D.C., departing from the small West Virginia town of Martinsville. After spending the day soaking up on history from our nation’s capital, I took the train back into town only to discover a massive snowstorm had rolled in and covered everything in thick blankets of powder and ice. The tiny Volkswagen Cabriolet lacked the horsepower to make it up the icy hill, and left me stranded in a frozen wasteland.
I wandered around for hours in sub-freezing temperatures, aimlessly looking for any signs of life until I discovered a convenience store with a payphone. After finally making it home, I went to the bathroom to relieve myself. When I looked down, my penis was gone. I screamed—as any self-respecting man would, convinced my manhood had succumbed to frostbite and fallen off somewhere between the train station and Circle K. A few terrifying moments later, I realized it was merely hiding, thanks to the scientific condition known as “shrinkage.” Compared to the events depicted in “The Revenant,” it was a walk in the park.
“The Revenant” is a brutal theatrical experience, which often felt more like a theme-park ride than a feature film—like a “hard R” adaptation of Oregon Trail, where dysentery is the least of worries. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”) created something unique in this movie—both beautiful and horrific. It’s an inspired depiction of the American frontier and captures the savage nature of the times.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an explorer with intimate knowledge of the vast unexplored frontier. He guides a hunting team through the territory, and after an attack from a Native American tribe sends them scrambling, Glass ends up in a bear fight that leaves him badly wounded. Several hunters agree to stay behind to try and help Glass, including his son and a shifty piece of rawhide named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald has little interest in helping Glass and leaves him for dead in the middle of the frozen forest. Bloodied, battered and hellbent on revenge, Glass must reach deep down to find a will to survive.
Iñárritu is a gifted filmmaker who seems capable of blending the craft of filmmaking and art of character creation into a seamless stew of cinematic delight. “The Revenant” is an absolute marvel to behold, from the distinct free-form visual style to emotionally charged performances. It’s a movie almost free of traditional structure. It’s lucid, like a dream (or a nightmare), and draws an audience in from the film’s opening to its extremely satisfying conclusion.
While the story feels pretty standard, it’s the way Iñárritu stages everything that makes it fresh. With all this talk lately of practical effects (“Star Wars”) and the resurgence of film screenings (“The Hateful Eight”), I think “The Revenant” makes a strong argument for the advances in digital filmmaking, which have helped construct something so gorgeous. I can’t remember a movie looking this good—even when perfectly aware many shots and scenes are post-production constructs that only exist thanks to 100 nerds in a warehouse digitally rendering them to completion.
The aforementioned theme-park analogy feels apt. “The Revenant” is an immersive experience. A ride which gets up close and personal with the unbridled world of the American frontier. Those watching can almost feel the grit and dirt ground into every pore, and smell sulfur from gunpowder. Anyone can see the crazy in Tom Hardy’s eyes. The greatest compliment I can pay to Iñárritu and company is how effortless the final product feels. DiCaprio and Hardy go toe-to-toe for the title of “best actor in the world.” Both of them are just incredible talents. I’d give Hardy the edge only because his scenery chewing feels a tad more natural.
“The Revenant” felt like a unique movie because it’s so tense and kinetic I ultimately felt like I’d gone through the wringer. Last year I praised “The Walk” because the last 45 minutes were so intense and realistically stage,d I felt like I was on top of the World Trade Center experiencing the tension and vertigo of a wire walker. “The Revenant” felt like that for nearly two-and-a-half hours. Iñárritu doesn’t just let people be viewers; he drags them from scene to scene, from one brutal moment to the next. The film is on a whole other level and should be seen by anyone who can stomach the sheer amount of ugly unleashed in this gauntlet of brutality. Highly recommended.