Two modern Westerns were released in the run-up to the 88th Academy Awards. Both films feature big name casts. Incredible violence takes place on screen. This handful of broad brushstrokes are all that sits in the Venn diagram between The Hateful Eight (read my review here) and The Revenant. Another stark difference between the two films: The Revenant's headline-dominating twelve Oscar nods vs a mere three for Tarantino's latest. There's a good reason for the divergence. Whereas Hateful Eight is Tarantino's Greatest Hits in a letter to himself, The Revenant is one of the best movies I will ever see.
At its core, The Revenant is a story of the human spirit. Wilderness guide Hugh Glass (Decaprio) leads a party of fur trappers through Western wilderness. The party is ambushed and slaughtered by Indians who believe Glass' crew is holding their chief's daughter hostage. Just as things look positive for the survivors, Glass is mauled by a bear and left clinging to life. With Indians in pursuit, the party faces a difficult choice: leave their mortally-wounded friend (and reason for survival) to die, or risk the lives of many to comfort a doomed man.
**SPOILERS START** The captain of the fur company (played by Domnhall Gleason) asks for volunteers to stay with Glass and attend to his burial while the rest of the party presses on. Glass' half-Indian son, a young man named Bridger, and a veteran trapper by the name of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) form the rearguard. Within hours, Glass' son is dead by Fitzgerald's hand, Bridger is coerced into flight, and Fitzgerald - a sinister, brutal man who may just be doing what he knows will save the able bodies remaining - has buried Glass alive.
A panorama of the unsettled Rockies plays.
We are left with a stirring scene where DiCaprio, squirming and bloodied, pulls himself out of his own grave. He inches over frozen ground, handful by broken handful, until he comes to the corpse of his murdered son. The music changes abruptly into a drum-like heartbeat, and Glass' life attains new meaning. He will seek revenge on the man who killed his son. Cue panorama. **SPOILERS END**
The rest of the movie is a mind-bendingly intense survival tale. There's a loose narrative involving Glass' past and the death of his wife. Tension between Bridger and Fitzgerald threatens to leave two more dead. The Indians creep gradually closer to the broken and bloodied wild-man searching for vengeance. The true story arc is that Glass moves heaven and earth to reach Fitzgerald (special mention to Tom Hardy for playing the most disgusting, relatable villain we'd probably all be when faced with a hard choice). He is chased down icy rivers, buffeted by storms, and pushed to lengths no mortal man should endure just to settle the score and avenge the death of his son.
The Revenant shines in the 90 minutes that follow Glass' betrayal: it is here where the audience witnesses the film's true beauty. First off, there is the obsessive camera work and shot planning of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Every still is a Hudson River School painting made real. Anyone gifted with sight will immediately understand why the majority of the film's Oscar nods are for technical craft. I can not understate how jaw-droppingly gorgeous the landscapes are.
Next, there's the pure endurance it took to produce the film. DiCaprio's unerring dedication to the hamstrung Glass is the story of the season. For example, Leo actually slept in that horse carcass. And actually careened down that ice-choked river. And actually ate raw bison liver. In a mass-market choked with CGI blockbusters and superhero action popcorn flicks, The Revenant is a breath of fresh air. Especially considering that we may never see another movie like it: film crew members threatened to quit and even walked off set throughout the entire filming process. The wintertime Canadian environment was "a living Hell". It's hard to convince professionals to function in living Hells. Although he will likely play Runner Up to Bryan Cranston's stellar performance in Trumbo, if there were an Oscar for "Most Intense Actor", it would be DiCaprio's.
Finally, as a result of the above, there's an overwhelming sense of sublimity and brutality throughout the film. Not all of it is violent, either; sparse dialogue means emotion must be portrayed shown and not told. Hugh Glass doesn't monologue - his struggles tell a more compelling story than any cliche-choked "character development" shots ever could.
The net effect of this is a litany of nature scenes that are the dictionary-definition of awesome. You are awed by the overwhelming force of nature as avalanches race, rapids flow, and bears savage. DiCaprio's Glass is not a prodigal hero - he is a man at the mercy of the elements. Some of these elements are other humans, but even then, he is just as surely vulnerable.
Director Iñárritu steers clear of film cliches to deliver this raw, authentic, positively brutal story. There's no "wince, jumpcut, gunshot noise" moment in the The Revenant. Iñárritu intentionally lets the camera linger in scenes where audiences expect sanitizing. In the film's opening sequence, a speaking role is shot through the head and throat by arrows and the camera doesn't flinch. You watch someone die and slump into death without an ounce of dramatics to keep you safe from the events on screen. Then, of course, there's the bear attack scene. Nothing in this film comes tied with a neat bow and a feel good message. If you are faint of heart, do not see The Revenant.
If you are literally anyone else, go see The Revenant in theaters. And do it quick. Watching The Revenant on the big screen was an experience I won't soon forget. You are so immersed into the emotion on screen that by the tenth of twelfth audible holy shit, it may be hard to remember that The Revenant is a movie at all. I think it's a tragedy of the era that modern movies need smarmy storytelling or emotionally-charged dialogue. Attempts to be overly serious come off as melodramatic overacting. Or worse.
Here instead is a narrative (albeit a straightforward one) that does the opposite. Through impeccable craft that shows-not-tells, razor-sharp production enabled by pure fortitude, and a simple aversion to film cliches, The Revenant does something few modern films do: create an experience. Small wonder it's set to beat them all come February.