Movie Title: The Revenant
Reviewer: Toni Kan
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
The Leonardo DiCaprio movie, Revenant, is not a good movie.
It is an amazing movie, a viscerally engaging piece of art that makes revenge seem not just desirable but ennobling. Hugh Glass’ survival against all odds is the stuff of legend but also testament to the human spirit’s infinite and uncanny capacity to defy biology in pursuit of a goal which in this case is vengeance. In bringing the character of Glass to life, Leonardo Di Caprio does not just infuse him with tenderness, there is nobility too in his single minded quest to avenge his son’s death and his friend’s betrayal.
This is a movie with graphically powerful scenes of violence, of men battling men, and men harming fellow men in very terrible ways. This is heart of darkness transposed from the Congo to North America.
Hugh Glass is no do-gooder. He is a thief, a pirate, a frontiersman and carpet bagger but one with a heart. He has a son who is half-Indian and the target of Fitzgerald’s rage and on account of whom, Glass and John Fitzgerald are at odds.
Brave, fearless and no coward, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear while out hunting alone. The savage attack happens three times but on the third charge, Glass does something remarkably uncommon.
Left for dead, he is discovered hours later by a search party. Cleaned, sewed up yet badly mauled, Glass becomes a burden for his mates who now have to navigate the treacherous topography with an invalid.
What to do? Kill him, or let him live until he expires? They choose life and leave him in the care of his son, Fitzgerald and a younger man, Jim Bridger, with a firm charge to give him a decent burial when he passes.
Cold, almost mortally injured and strapped down, Glass watches his teammate commit an abominable act, one that no father would pray to witness and thus begins Hugh Glass’ battle not just to survive but to return, thus the title, revenant, which refers to one who returns from the dead.
His battle to survive despite the odds stacked against him is amazing to see and even though DiCaprio is acting, one can still feel the raw pain and grief that stretches his features and propels his journey. And what a journey!
It is in explicating Glass’ journey from near death to life and return that the director shows his deft directorial touch by making us see one man’s battle against, not just his own survival but the elements and savage men bent on killing him.
There is an amazing chase scene where, fleeing from red Indians, Hugh Glass hurtles through the air and ends up, literally, in the belly of a horse. That is one movie scene that will be referenced for years to come.
Watch out also for when Glass encounters an Indian alone at a feast and how a shared history of pain provides the bond that unites the two disparate entities.
While DiCaprio might be hailed and deservedly so as the main actor in this movie, he has a contender for that title; the forbidding landscape, one frozen rock solid by snow.
Inarittu mines the inclement weather and forbidding landscape making both the main characters in his story. The early morning shots of sunlight breaking through snow tipped rows of trees are beautiful on the surface but also intensely funereal when viewed in the context of the movie and its tragic subject.
The phrase that finally suggests itself is from Thomas Yeats who wrote many years ago of a ‘terrible beauty’ being born.
Tom Hardy is incredibly unlikeable as the creepy, manipulating and evil Fitzgerald who provides the movie with its emotional core because it is his action(s) that propel most of Hugh Glass’ tragic experiences from going hunting alone and embarking on a quest for vengeance.
In watching Revenant, one is reminded over and over again of the Quentin Tarantino revenge movie Kill Bill but where Tarantino was paying sly homage to bubble gum martial art movies and B movie westerns, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu elevates the form in Revenant imbuing it with gravitas.
Revenant is a genre defining movie, a virtuoso performance from an actor at the top of his game and a mature director who has come a long, long way from Amores Perros and 21 Grams and Babel but who despite fame and success, has not lost an iota of his gift for storytelling and directing which plumbs the very depth of human motives and emotions. Bravo!
At the end, the human will triumphs over all obstacles and when Glass declares to the Captain that ‘I am not afraid to die,’ one knows that here is a man who has stared into the abyss and lost his fear.
Mention has been made of Heart of Darkness and one must return to that thesis because the descent into atavism is a clear repudiation of all vestiges of civilization and the codes of moral behaviour.
But civilization is much more than obedience to rules and regulations, it is more about how we respond to injustice and what Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in a note on Shakespeare’s Othello, called ‘motiveless malignity.’
It is the restoration of that imbalance that leads the captain on his doomed quest to find Fitzgerald but deep in the convoluted whorls of that doomed quest lies the difference between the savage and the civilized.
And that is the true message of Revenant – balance must always be restored.
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