Director Alejandro González Iñárritu struck Oscar gold in 2015 with his showbiz satire Birdman, in which a troubled Hollywood star trying to put on a Broadway play has to endure the slings and arrows of critics and rivals. The tortured hero of Iñárritu’s latest film, The Revenant, has his own arrows to avoid, but these are indubitably more lethal.
This epic true story of survival, revenge and redemption takes us back to the untamed wilderness of 1820s America where the legend of mountain man Hugh Glass was forged. Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio at his shaggiest) and his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), are the guides for fur trappers on an expedition along the Missouri River, but it’s clear from the start that little love is lost between the pair and the traders, particularly John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, on song again as a brooding bad guy). However, that’s quickly put to one side when marauding Arikara tribesmen ambush the group, indiscriminately slaughtering man and beast to snatch the trappers’ lucrative furs.
It’s a dizzying opening that sets the pulse racing but pales in comparison to what happens next. When Glass is exploring a forest, the beautiful tranquility of the place is suddenly shattered by nature red in tooth, claw and drool, as Glass gets up close and perforated by an enraged mother bear. Sustained and savage, the attack by the aggrieved grizzly will leave you wincing – the beast’s breath steams up the lens of the camera as it paws its prostrate victim.
The mountain man miraculously survives but his mutilated body is then left in the not-so-tender care of the treacherous Fitzgerald, who just wants to return to civilisation and get paid, along with the rest of the crew who’ve travelled on ahead. He has no intention of waiting for Glass to die of his injuries, so decides to inter the helpless fellow into the ground early. It’s harrowing to behold, especially when Fitzgerald adds murder to his list of sins. However, that’s also the spur for Glass to drag himself from the makeshift grave to embark on a gruelling 200-mile trek across the wilderness to wreak his vengeance and pass into legend.
It’s here that double Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki’s astonishing cinematography – intimate, immediate, using only natural light – comes into its own. The experience of working with director Terrence Malick on The New World and The Tree of Life is there for all to see. The camera is seemingly always mere inches from DiCaprio, and immerses us in Glass’s existential travails, whether he’s buffeted by the elemental force of bone-chilling cold, storms and river rapids; weakened by his hungry, mutilated body; beset by nightmarish visions of a tragic past; or hunted by the pursuing Arikara who, like Glass, have a score to settle.
Here’s a movie where the elements ooze from the screen, and DiCaprio matches the experience by baring his wounds and his soul in a performance of agonising honesty and emotion (he even feasted on raw liver for authenticity). There’s little dialogue for DiCaprio to hide behind (even after the hobbled hero self-cauterises his lacerated larynx). He must surely be favourite for this year’s best actor Oscar.
Iñárritu also confirms his status as a skilled, ambitious and determined director who isn’t going to let a little thing like a lack of snow stop him from shooting his film chronologically – the production decamped to Argentina when the snow disappeared from its North American locations. The synergy he creates with cameraman Lubezki recalls the fabled partnership between Orson Welles and Gregg Toland on Citizen Kane.
As with Birdman, the director has produced another technical tour de force, but DiCaprio ensures it’s the heart of Glass that keeps it beating.
The Revenant is released in cinemas on Friday 15 January