Revenge used to be a dish best served cold. In Inarritu’s visceral and eviscerating vision, revenge is best served in warm blood, preferably with some spots on the camera lens.
Life is brutal in this land, described by Tom Hardy’s character Fitzgerald as “the edge of the world”. And that by a man who is one of its more settled inhabitants.
It’s the early 19th century and Whites are sweeping over Native American territory, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (coming off two Oscar wins, in Gravity and Birdman, and up for another) captures the almost scary beauty of an unconquered territory in breathtaking detail. The people riding into it are as much in awe as the viewers, whether coming upon a cliff, a raging river, a quiet creek, an unblemished snowy expanse, a mini-avalanche (and was that a meteorite, not sure), or just a herd milling about as one of them is attacked by dogs.
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If blood is one constant, that’s another. In this territory of Man vs Wild, the animals are there only to be eaten or killed for their pelt or fur. Few animals are spared that fate, and few niceties are allowed as hungry men scoop or tear meat out from their insides to eat — except perhaps squirrels. And we only mention that because squirrel does find a special place when The Revenant invokes its more spiritual leanings. Even then, the sight of DiCaprio’s character Glass getting into the warm innards of a horse for healing and heat will stay with us for a long, long time. Given that it comes right after another scene of gasping surprise as man and horse go off a cliff and into a tree, it is a feat with few parallels.
There are other feats meant to impress, and do. The scene where Glass is mauled by a grizzly can’t go without mention. The bear leaves him half-dead, and comes back to end what remains, pulling him, finishing one side, turning him around to get at work on the other, tearing his clothes off, and in the end, just standing on top of his head. That Glass survives is what the rest of this story is about.
This is all very well but where The Revenant comes up short is giving us any reference points to the extreme violence on display, except very, very broad and very, very perfunctory strokes. Glass was married to a Native American, and their son is his constant companion. Glass’s love is captured in dreamy flashes he has of her, where she is always smiling indulgently before being killed ungraciously and murmuring stuff such as “I am here”, “I will always be here”, and “Till you can grab a breath, fight”. No real time is spent to establish a bond between Glass and Hawk either, though the father does fight Fitzgerald when he insults latter.
In the normal course, that should leave Glass questioning at least some of the bloody battles his fellow Whites wage on Native Americans. But apparently it doesn’t.
The only other Native Americans to feature comprise a solo angry group with a chief looking for his daughter, who has been kidnapped by Whites. It kills anyone who comes in the way of that, no questions asked.
While Glass is based on a real Hugh Glass, who like here was a member of a fur trade company, you bet much of the story has been embellished for the film. And, of course, we know that the twain of Glass and his son, and the Native American chief and his daughter, will meet.
Still, DiCaprio, as DiCaprio does, gives this film all he has got, and more, as he crawls, strips, grunts and grates, and is butchered and butchers in return, for revenge.
Hardy (nominated for Oscar supporting actor) and Poulter, as fellow team member Bridger, are also good.
However, at this #OscarSoWhite, if playing the White Man with the most noble intentions, in this film with some Native American pretensions, doesn’t get DiCaprio that elusive statuette, little will.
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter