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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Movie Review: 'The Revenant'

The Revenant is a brutal, brilliant, and stirring survival epic.

Review by Matt Cummings

It's not too often that Actor Leonardo DiCaprio gets up-staged by a fellow cast member. A favorite among SJF writers, DiCaprio has enjoyed well-earned center stage status in too many Oscar shoe-ins throughout his bountiful career. And while others might best him in The Revenant, the epic is brutal, gripping, and stirring, cementing its director as A-List, even if it denies DiCaprio his first Oscar.

Set some 20 years after the famous journey of Lewis and Clark, the mostly peaceful west they mapped is a now different world. Invaded by fur trappers and low-life frontiersmen, native tribes like the Arrikara and Pawnee wage an unwinnable war of scalpings and brutal sneak attacks. Caught between these two worlds is Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), who's guiding a group of trappers home with their pelts, when a tribe looking for a stolen woman attacks Glass' camp. After a vicious arrow fight, Glass, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the boy Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and the psychotic Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) lead what's left of the team home. But when a savage bear attack leaves Glass hopelessly injured, Fitzgerald half-buries Glass and abandons him as winter sets in. Left with no weapons, Glass must recover from his wounds, and literally drag himself across the American west back to face Fitzgerald in an epic savage of cat and mouse.

The Revenant is not for the faint of heart. If you're a vegetarian, you might collapse at all the consumption of uncooked meats; and if you can't stand brutal bloody violence, you'll probably find yourself covering your eyes throughout this expansive epic. But if you can wrestle those hands away from your face, you'll witness one of the best movies of 2015, a cinematic masterpiece that breaks a lot of rules in terms of how its leads are treated. Many times, leads are put in the best possible light, given multiple chances to re-shoot a scene, and are generally well-taken care of during a shoot. It doesn't appear that Director Alejandro G. Inarritu was that concerned about extending such conventions, as his one-take, frenetic outdoor-lit style instantly shocks you into this world. It's bruising, bloody, savage, and offers little quarter.

DiCaprio and Hardy are barely recognizable with their shaggy beards, bad teeth and even worse hygiene, and Inarritu exposes them to some of the most harrowing acts of violence and outdoor conditions that I've seen in a film. Inarritu and Writer Mark L. Smith collaborate on the novel by Michael Punke, making sure to remind us that the West was eventually won by stronger people inflicting greater causalities on the other. But, it's not that particular message that elevates The Revenant to stratospheric levels.

What really separates The Revenant from other Oscar hopefuls is the astonishing cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Known for the space survival film Gravity, Lubezki choose sometimes claustrophobic angles, including odd angles of ice-capped rivers, in-your-face action that frankly hasn't been seen before, and even DiCaprio's breathing which fogs the screen on several occasions. That's not shoddy camera work, it's brilliant. He reminds us that the west was as wild as one can imagine, making you glad to enter your heated car and well-insulated home after witnessing this one. Lubezki and Inarritu also understand characters, right down to the mother bear who pounces on Glass in one of the best scenes of the year. She sniffs, snorts, drools, and treats Glass' back like a scratching post, in what looks like one combined shot. She's almost treating him like a toy, dumping him for a moment before roaring back to take another stab. It proves just how amazing digital technology has progressed, and should occupy the top lesson in a film professor's plans.

And even with all of these strengths, DiCaprio's chances of winning his first Oscar aren't promising. One can't give an award to someone who spends half of the film grunting, unless that performance is somehow transportative. That's not DiCaprio here, but he's deeply committed to the cause, his eyes which do the telling for most of his time on screen. The real award should go to Hardy, who upstages everyone with a disturbing, psychotic performance that sees him delve so deeply into the role of a moral-less frontiersman, many of my viewing colleagues were shocked to learn it was him. He deserves the nod, although it wouldn't surprise me if MPAS added him and DiCaprio to Best Lead Actor, which would of course split the vote. Stupid MPAS. Gleeson and Poulter also turn in respectable turns, but with so much intensity throughout, their stories get easily lost.

Filled with excellent lead performances, stunning vistas, and brutally-realistic violence, The Revenant is nearly an instant classic, depicting what can only be described as a survival film that few of us modern milk duds could endure. It cements Inarritu as Hollywood elite, and while DiCaprio will have to wait, the film should nab a few other some well-deserved Oscar hardware.

The Revenant is rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity and has a runtime of 156 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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