It seems a while since we had a decent epic, a Gladiator or a Braveheart (accents aside), or even a bad one, Waterworld, Troy. Something not based on fantasy or a comic franchise but just an immersive, non green screen, we actually built that, epic. Big scale, must-see-on-the-big-screen, well over 2 hours run time – EPIC. A proper epic makes you forget all the niggling questions like ‘is that really historical accurate’, ‘that seems a bit convenient’, ‘surely you’d be dead after THAT’. Last night I finally saw The Revenant and it was the epic I didn’t know I needed.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ambitious project was already surrounded by myth and gossip during filming, hugely over-budget, had to relocate to Argentina because Canada just wasn’t damn wintery enough, Tom Hardy dropped out of Suicide Squad because this film needed more time and of course the constant ‘this one’s is Leo’s oscar movie’ buzz. Not to mention the tales of extreme method acting, crazy schedule, crew members fired who couldn’t handle the pace, Hardy throttling Iñárritu and so on. When a film has this much hype it’s always got the potential to disappoint.
It didn’t disappoint me though. If you haven’t been yet (I am late to the party so you probably have) believe the hype GET to a cinema, this is NOT a wait till it streams release. Quite apart from the excellent acting, (DiCaprio literally chews the scenery) this owes just as much to the stunning landscape and the commitment to capturing the uniqueness and beauty of the natural world. Iñárritu decided to film natural light only and that gave an average of 2 hours a day to film, so they rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and then went for the take. If it went wrong, re-set, do it all again tomorrow. Now, I heard that and thought, well it’s going to be a lot of long shots of DiCaprio being wilderness tough, he’s an accomplished and experienced performer, sure it’ll be fine. I really didn’t realise how many incredible set pieces or how many people, horses, fires, props that Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki were committing to.
The first 30 minutes are entirely reminiscent of the unforgettable Saving Private Ryan so immersive and close that you scarcely draw breathe, just the same reaction I had to Spielberg’s beach storming. When you are let up for air, there’s some fast character catching up to do. With two or three exceptions, everyone is a man, the frontiersman are all dressed in furs and home-spun layers with a greater (Hardy / DiCaprio) or lesser (Poulter/ Goodluck) degree of facial hair – so without a tight script and some stand out performances you could be a bit ‘wait who is that now’? The cast are all exceptionally good. Hardy and DiCaprio have been given the awards nods, fair play, but Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter deserve huge acknowledgement too. Being support to these two heavyweights – both in acting and character terms – is not an easy task, but Gleeson brings a wonderful, natural performance as the Captain, he doesn’t get the big emotions or big endurance tests, but he is utterly solid and allows Hardy and DiCaprio the room to indulge. Poulter, I have only seen in Chronicles of Narnia – he was great- IMDB tells me he’s in other ‘teen’ films – so this seems to mark his transition into adult films. Good choice Poulter, brave as you like to jump in with this kind of talent but you held your own and brought not only truth but some much needed empathy to your Bridger. A shout out too to Arthur Redcloud as Hikuc, a truck driver in his debut performance, just delightful and probably the most likeable character all things considered.
The landscape is breathtaking, from the huge sweeping shots of frozen expanses, mountains and stunning river shots, to the detailed work of dew on plants, close-ups of ants, bark, Iñárritu REALLY loves the outdoors and Lubezki delivers. The light is ever impressive and changing, a scene by a river towards the end, where the sun lights up the mountain side was breathtaking and totally aside from the action on screen. Indeed, the story has plenty going on already, but what makes this film unique is that tireless commitment to capture the visceral, bleak, unspoilt beauty of 19th century America. No compromises, no cheats and almost all achieved with minimal computer enhancement. Where CG was used – BEAR ATTACK – it was seamless. Seriously, I never want to know HOW they did the bear, it was so real it makes you wince – me for Glass, my boyfriend for the bear. I also enjoyed the balance of time spent with the opposing two groups of frontiersman and Native Americans – this is of course Glass (and arguably Fitzgerald’s) story, but in the time spent with the Ree and the development of Hikuc’s character (I adored the playful snow tasting scene) Iñárritu bans any sense of ‘cowboys and injuns’. Iñárritu and DiCaprio have both spoken out about the film being a platform for highlighting the struggle of culture clash, of industrialisation, modernisation to the detriment of ancient tradition and the natural world and similar themes. Which is fine – personally I just enjoyed the visceral beauty of the backdrop and hyper real performances used to tell the story – but if that motivation drove them to get the results they did – no complaints. I cannot call the cinematography Oscar – triple whammy for Lubezki? Probably. But I did adore the work in Carol and Fury Road…
The Oscars are hugely political – never more so than now – and it is undoubtedly DiCaprio’s ‘time’, but all that aside, if he wins for The Revenant it will be good thing. It’s not a Judi Dench winning for Shakespeare in Love moment, I’d say it’s deserved. DiCaprio is known for physically committing to a role – see quaaludes scene in Wolf of Wall Street, but this was surely the most physically grueling role of his life, of most roles IN life. As my friend described it ‘Oh the cold!’ – you felt cold watching it, when he stuffed his fingers in his mouth to warm them on his breathe, you did go OUCH frostbite. There’s plenty written out there on the physical punishment, much made of the eating of raw fish, bison liver, the Skywalker Hoth moment – but for me, DiCaprio deserves the Oscar for his emotional performance. Glass is not a character that gives you a big Oscar emotional outburst moment. This is a man with emotions deeply buried, hard-as-nails, survivalist, but the combination of DiCaprio’s total immersion and the close-enough-to-touch camera work, allows ab understanding of this man’s motivations, pain – physical and emotional – and eventual surrender, completely. The fact that he finds that truth behind the eyes whilst being covered in goo, frost and muck is wonderful. Look at those eyes…
Hardy is great too, getting a lot of dialogue to have fun with and a nice clear nasty role to get stuck into – not particularly stand out for me in the Hardy canon but solid as always.
There a few dodgy moments, like any good epic, the Gladiator field of wheat style flashbacks were a wee bit laboured and there is the whole hypothermia elephant in the room but a film like The Revenant validates the argument that films should be seen at the cinema – more even than the big 3D behemoths like The Force Awakens or Fury Road. It’s not the big set pieces in this film – perfect as they are, it’s the space around the story that makes it so special, a long lingering gaze as you breathe out, the dedication to quiet and still. In these days of ‘oh just stream it’, a film like this deserves your full attention. The utter immersion of a shared experience in a dark room is worth it every time for me, but if you’re reluctant to leave your comfy sofa for sticky popcorn floor very often – make it now, make it for The Revenant.
Oh and a massive three cheers for Powaqa’s ‘I’ll cut off your balls!’. Justice, Ree style and important moment in a male dominated film.