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If films were evaluated based purely on their stylistic merits then The Revenant wouldn’t just be the best film of 2015 but arguably one of the greatest films ever made. The difficult conditions on set have been well documented but all that pain and discomfort was worth it because few movies contain as many jaw droppingly stunning scenes as The Revenant. Accusing it of being simply style over substance would be a little harsh, but it definitely comes close to crossing over that line however overall there’s just about enough meat on the carcass to stave off that particular criticism.
Tonally The Revenant is a confliction of peaks and valleys, the film swings frequently between gripping intensity and calmer more reflective moments. While in less skilled hands this could have results in a film that feels disjointed director Alejandro G. Iñárritu instead creates a rollercoaster style effect, the more plodding moments serving only to enhance the shaper brutally violent sequences. Brutal really is an apt word to describe The Revenant, whenever the rifles or fists come out the film becomes an unflinching swirl of crimson blood and white snow, the most memorable being a torturous scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s fur trapper Hugh Glass is mauled by a bear. Even the most strong stomached audience members are likely to find themselves wincing, and those with a weaker disposition should perhaps give this one a miss.
Many have tipped this year as DiCaprio’s best chance at finally scoring that elusive Oscar statue and if that is the case it’ll be completely deserved. Hugh Glass is a man of few words, and when he does speak it’s often not even in English, DiCaprio has to give a much more physical performance than the smarmy charmer type we’ve seen so often from him. The grunts and yelps of pain become the language in which the audience understands Glass’ anguish over both his considerable wounds and personal loss. It’s a towering performance that is only matched by Tom Hardy as the opportunistic John Fitzgerald who convinces Will Poulter’s naïve Jim Bridger to leave Glass for dead. When DiCaprio and Hardy go toe to toe in the film’s third act it’s a weighty clash that lives up the anticipation built up over the previous two hours.
The Revenant has been billed as a revenge piece, but it’s not really. It’s more a film about the powerful human will to survive and the depths men will sink to for personal gain or selfish cowardice. From a narrative standpoint the film is rather weak, a carrot is constantly dangled in front of the audience and then snatched away at the last second, finally post the two hour mark the viewer is given their reward but shaving thirty minutes of the running time would have probably improved the film’s pacing. It wouldn’t have been a tough task to trim the film down a little either there’s a rather unnecessary side plot focused on a group of Native Americans hunting down Glass’ frontiersmen group in order to reclaim a kidnapped daughter, while it gives the film its incredible opening it adds very little less and feels tacked on.
The Revenant is not for everybody, a fact that cannot be overstated; it’s likely to alienate more mainstream audience members in particular due to the central narrative so often taking a backseat in favour of sweeping vista pans that can last close to a minute. However those able to appreciate films for their stylistic aims, and achievements, will undoubted find a lot to love because few films are this strong from a technical standpoint, it may be a little pretentious at times but it’s a real cinematic marvel for those that embrace it.
When compared to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s last film, “Birdman”, it’s remarkable that The Revenant comes from the same director, the two films couldn’t be any more different. Perhaps because of this The Revenant will disappoint some people, but few directors can switch styles with such ease and create two of the best movies of the last five years in consecutive years. The Revenant is a brutally beautiful film about humanities undying will to survive at all costs, it may isolate some but it’s a flawed diamond in a year sorely lacking them.