Adventure Drama

'The Revenant' Film Review: Survival-horror filtered through a Western's lens

January 8, 2016Ben MK

For his role in Vampire's Kiss, Nicolas Cage ate a cockroach. To play Trevor Reznik in The Machinist, Christian Bale lost 63 pounds. And for his part in director Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up to his Oscar-winning Birdman, Leonardo DiCaprio endured freezing conditions, snarfed up raw bison liver and stripped down to curl up inside a hollowed-out horse carcass. Now that's method acting.

In The Revenant, DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, the real-life frontiersman whose claim to fame was that he was savagely mauled by a grizzly bear in 1823 and lived to tell the tale, traversing hundreds of miles of American wilderness entirely on his own, all to track down the other members of his hunting party who left him for dead after the attack. In reality, Glass never got his revenge, but it wasn't for lack of trying. The film version, however, paints a different account of his gruesome ordeal. And it's one of the most visceral movie-going experiences you may ever have.

Adapted from author Michael Punke's 2002 book, "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge," the film begins with Glass' hunting party under attack from a band of Ree Indians out to rescue the kidnapped daughter of one of the tribal elders. Unflinching in its brutality, the invigorating opening sequence unfolds with camera work that swirls around the action for minutes on end without a cut. And by the time the violent confrontation is all said and done, the trappers, led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson), find their numbers drastically reduced from a hearty forty-five to a paltry ten.

Among them, we find a former soldier (and attempted scalping survivor) named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), an inexperienced teenager named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass' half-Pawnee Indian son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who bears the scars from an attack years earlier, when soldiers burnt down his village and murdered his mother. On the run from the Ree, the men must make their way to the nearest settlement. And with the harsh winter closing in, their best hope for getting there is Glass, who knows the unforgiving landscape better than any of them.

Then the unthinkable happens. In the film's most shocking scene, Glass is all but decimated by a grizzly bear protecting her cubs, an encounter that leaves him at death's door, unable to speak or move. It's not long after that that Captain Henry makes the tough call to leave Glass behind, but not before entrusting his final days to the care of Fitzgerald, Bridger and Hawk. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, has different plans in mind. And after he murders Hawk and deceives Bridger, he leaves Glass with nothing but ice-cold revenge to motivate the grueling quest that occupies the remainder of the film.

The result is, in essence, a survival-horror movie. Only instead of a protagonist who must overcome an onslaught of zombies, we have one who must endure a broken body and Mother Nature's wrath. With minimal dialogue, DiCaprio carries most of The Revenant with his committed performance, which also sees him nearly buried alive and swept up in raging rapids. Meanwhile, Hardy chews the scenery as his trash-talking adversary. He gets the lion's share of the dialogue, but it's DiCaprio's total immersion in his role that elevates The Revenant from bare-bones storytelling to must-see masterpiece.

The Revenant releases January 8th, 2016 from Twentieth Century Fox. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity. Its runtime is 2 Hrs. 36 Mins.

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