(I originally penned this piece in another place, before the Oscars for 2016 were announced. Since "The Revenant" did very well in the Academy Awards, I thought I would re-write and re-publish my views on this film in light of the Oscar awards.)
I originally wasn't going to see this film in a cinema, but wait till it came out on DVD. Partly this was because of its reputation for violence, and partly because of its alleged excessive length. The other day I relented, and saw it in cinema release. Yes, it's very violent in places. Yes, it's very long – a little over 2 1/2 hours. But it's worth it. It received 3 Oscars at the 2016 Academy Awards, and I can see why.
It has a Mexican director, Alejandro Inarritu, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Smith, and it's partly based on a novel by Michael Punke which, in turn, was partly based on a real-life incident. The lead character, Hugh Glass, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio who got the Best Actor Oscar this year for his performance. Quite right too. He is brilliant. His nemesis, a lying, venal, and ruthless character named Fitzgerald, is played by Tom Hardy – another excellent performance from this versatile actor. This film is not the first time the Glass story has been on the silver screen, but this one's memorable.
Glass is a member of, and guide to, a party of fur trappers way out in the American wilderness in the 1820s. He is accompanied by his half-Indian son, while brief flashbacks in the movie show Glass's relationship with an Indian woman and her death at the hands of white soldiers. The trappers are ambushed by hostile Indians who kill most of the whites, in a brilliantly staged battle sequence. A small group, including Glass, his son, and Fitzgerald escape overland and head for a frontier fort many miles away. While hunting game for the survivors, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear and horribly injured. His comrades, led by Fitzgerald, think Glass won't live, kill his son so as to leave no witnesses, steal his rifle and supplies, and abandon him to his fate. Glass doesn't die, but sets out for the fort, determined to wreak vengeance on Fitzgerald. Along the way he has death-defying adventures with hostile animals, hostile Indians, and hostile trappers. But he also gets help from friendly Indians and, bit by bit, crawls, scrambles, and limps his way towards the fort, safety, and revenge.
The body count in this movie is very high, and the deaths are usually graphic and grisly. Life on the frontier in the 1820s was nasty, brutish and short, and this film pulls no punches. If you have a delicate stomach, be warned. However, DiCaprio, as the put-upon Glass, is superb. I've always enjoyed his roles and in this one, he hits a peak. I'd love to know how they made the scene where he fights to the death with the grizzly bear. Real bear? Animatronic bear? Man in bear suit? It probably wasn't a digital bear; it's been reported that Inarritu wanted no digital special effects. However he did it, the scene is an absolute corker.
The magnificent forest, snow and mountain scenery was filmed in the US, Canada, and Argentina. This is one of those movies where the location, the countryside where the action takes place, is really a character in the story too: Glass must overcome not only hostile animals and humans, but a wild, beautiful, and unrelenting wilderness as well. This guy does a Bear Grylls nearly 200 years before Grylls was invented. The photography is absolutely stunning, particularly on the big screen, and deservedly won the Best Cinematography Oscar this year. It brought back floods of memories of my time years ago in Canada, when I travelled through similar scenery in British Columbia and Québec.
Hugh Glass is a real, historical character who actually did suffer a grizzly bear attack and had to struggle through the wilderness for days and weeks to reach safety. However, this film is more than just simply a fictionalised re-telling of part of his life. The movie operates at several different levels; partly it's a revenge flick, partly it's a "man versus wilderness" flick, partly it's about how the whites treated the native American Indians and how the Indians reacted, and also partly about the sometimes overlooked influence of the French in the early history of the US. Perhaps, right at the end, there is a hint of spiritual redemption too.
The direction is very good – the movie rightly won Inarritu the Best Director award at this year's Oscars. The editing is mostly good and to the point, the music soundtrack hits just the right atmosphere though it does sometimes telegraph the movie's punches, and the grim story moves along at an unrelenting pace towards the final confrontation. I have only two criticisms of it: First, its length. Although the film does not drag, I thought it could have been shortened a little, to everyone's satisfaction. Second, the incomprehensibility of much of the spoken dialogue. When the characters spoke English, they spoke in such mumbled, slurred, backwoods accents, I only understood about 50% (if that!) of what they said. When they mumbled or slurred in French or the native Indian language, this didn't matter because subtitles were used. I only wish subtitles had been used for the English language dialogue too.
Nevertheless, these are small criticisms. They detract but little from the awesome achievement of the director, cast and crew in this superb motion picture. If you have a strong stomach, don't miss it. My female companion and I both agreed on a star rating.
PS: Not long after I saw this film, I was in a doctor's surgery having some skin cancers cut out. The surgeon and I got talking about movies. He had recently seen "The Revenant" too. We both agreed that we liked the movie, then I commented on how awesome was the "bear mauling" scene. The surgeon said, "but when Leonardo DiCaprio sews himself up afterwards, Hollywood got it all wrong!" He then went into a total, technical analysis of the "sewing up" scene, complete with proper surgical terms and Latin names for all the body parts, explaining to me how Hollywood medically stuffed up that scene, and what should have really been done on screen! Of course, it was all double-Dutch to me, but it was so funny. He was so passionate about it. At the end, I just said, "Well, you obviously feel the same way about Hollywood's treatment of medical matters, that I, as an ex-lawyer, feel about Hollywood's treatment of court-room scenes!"
My star rating (out of 5): * * * * 1/2