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The Revenant

D: Alejandro González Iñárritu / 156m

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck,  Paul Anderson, Duane Howard, Kristoffer Joner, Brendan Fletcher, Lukas Haas, Grace Dove, Melaw Nakehk’o

If you had to guess what Alejandro González Iñárritu’s next movie would be after Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), then chances are you wouldn’t have picked this one, a Western shot on a grand scale and based on events that happened to the fur trapper and explorer Hugh Glass in 1823. And maybe you would have thought that it was too much of a challenge for the director to pull off. But for anyone who still has their doubts, let’s make it clear from the start: this is one of the must-see movies of 2015 (which makes it a shame that most people won’t see it until 2016).

Glass’s story is the stuff of legend. While working for a fur-trapping expedition along the Missouri river, he and his fellow trappers were ambushed by Arikara Indians, and forced to flee back to their base at Fort Kiowa. While out scouting for food for the remaining men, Glass encountered a grizzly bear and her two cubs. The bear attacked Glass and he was severely mauled and injured. He managed to kill the bear with the aid of two other trappers, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger. His wounds, however, were such that it was believed he would die from his injuries. Leaving behind Fitzgerald and Bridger to bury Glass when the time came, the rest of the expedition, led by General William Henry Ashley, made it back to the fort. But Fitzgerald and Bridger left Glass for dead, and made their way back to the fort as well where they lied about his fate.

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As a feat of physical endurance, Glass’s “return from the dead” was astonishing. Despite a broken leg, festering wounds, and cuts to his back that left his ribs exposed, the explorer bravely crawled most of the way to the Cheyenne river where he fashioned a basic raft and drifted downstream to Fort Kiowa. In all he travelled over two hundred miles, and it took him six weeks. One of the main things that kept him going was finding Fitzgerald and Bridger and exacting his revenge (though in the end he spared both of them).

In telling this tale of survival against the odds, Iñárritu has taken the book by Michael Punke and opened up the story to include rival French trappers, a tribe of Arikara Indians led by a chief whose daughter has been abducted, and a son for Glass whose mixed heritage (his mother was a Pawnee) makes Fitzgerald uneasy (with predictably violent results). And for Fitzgerald there’s no forgiveness here, as Glass hunts him down with the intention of making him pay with his life for betraying Glass and leaving him to die.

Along the way, Iñárritu shows the hardships and terrors of life on the frontier, with its sub-zero temperatures and harsh terrain, and where men face death at every turn – from each other, from the Indians, and more importantly, from nature itself, which is uncompromising and unsympathetic to their needs. The director immerses the viewer in this terrifying yet beautiful and alluring environment, and each new scene adds to the spectacle Iñárritu has created. This is a richly textured, sometimes hyper-real environment that Iñárritu has constructed, and its silent majesty is often awe-inspiring.

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There are numerous scenes that stand out in this way, from the opening tracking shot through a water-logged forest to the brutal (very brutal) attack on the trappers, and on to the bear attack – quite possibly one of the most impressive sequences in any movie of 2015. But Iñárritu isn’t finished. Once Glass disinters himself he has to traverse the very same harsh territory that he knows is likely to kill him for sure this time, and the various places he finds himself at, offer equal parts safety and danger. And you have to applaud the commitment of DiCaprio, who must have risked hypothermia on many occasions in order to get the shots his director wanted.

The Revenant is a bloody, raw, uncompromising movie that treats the inherent violence of the times as if it was just a part of daily life, something that went largely unacknowledged. Men are replaceable but the pelts they gather are not. When Fitzgerald and Bridger arrive back at the fort there’s no warm welcome, no sign that anyone’s pleased to see them; there’s a complete indifference. The inference is clear: you do what you have to do. But while survival is a key issue, this is at heart a revenge tale, and Iñárritu doesn’t hold back in showing Glass’s angry determination to survive, or the sacrifices he has to make in order to do so. Whether it’s allowing a surging river to channel him away from the approaching Arikara, or keeping warm overnight in the belly of a horse, Glass simply will not give up.

As the indefatigable Glass, DiCaprio gives one of his best performances. With limited dialogue, and relying on facial expressions and body language to impart his character’s feelings and emotions, this is a physical tour-de-force. There are times when DiCaprio isn’t even recognisable as DiCaprio, occasions where the demands of the script have him twisted and tormented in agony. It’s a magnificent portrayal, and superbly counter-balanced by Hardy’s performance as Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a survivor as well, a man who thinks of himself first and others second, whose sole motivation is to make it through in whichever way is needed. He’s an opportunist to be sure, but he’s also just as calculating as Glass. Both actors are astonishing in their roles, and their eventual showdown is a masterpiece of bloody threat and the will to survive.

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The photography, by Oscar-winning DoP Emmanuel Lubezki, is stunning throughout, the landscapes and mountains and rivers captured with such penetrating exactness it’s almost like being in the movie yourself. It’s possibly the most beautifully realised and shot movie you’re likely to see for some time, and the decision to shoot with natural light has paid off handsomely. There’s also a beautiful, evocative score courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner and Carsten Nicolai that adds to the richness of the material.

Rating: 9/10 – a tremendous, incredible piece of story telling – previously told in Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris as Glass (albeit renamed) – The Revenant is a movie that is consistently impressive from start to finish, and which features stunning location photography and superb performances from all concerned; Iñárritu’s follow-up to Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is intelligent, visceral, relentless movie making that packs an unexpected emotional punch, and is possibly the most impressively mounted movie of 2015.