It was cold today. Very cold. Walking home from the screening, with my hands up my sleeves because I’ve misplaced my gloves, I thought, “This is exactly what Leonardo DiCaprio had to endure.” Except it wasn’t, of course. For starters, I wasn’t mauled by a bear. And I didn’t have to sleep inside a horse. Still, it was cold.
In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a hunter and tracker on the 1820s American frontier. After being mauled by that bear, his son is murdered before his eyes and he’s left for dead by his compatriots. Rising from his half-filled grave, he treks across the frozen wilderness in search of revenge.
Glass isn’t so much a character as he is the physical embodiment of sheer determination. There’s little in the way of characterisation here: something happens to him (son murdered, left for dead), he decides what to do about it (revenge), and he sets about doing it. Then we get to watch as DiCaprio uses The Method in its purest form, reacting to all the horrible things nature throws at him.
And we get to watch these things through some really fantastic cinematography. Remember in Children of Men there were a couple of action scenes filmed as single, complex takes? Well, The Revenant is made up almost entirely of those. It’s no surprise, given that director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki worked on both these films (and Birdman, which used the same technique, although to a much larger extent).
Lubezki’s camera places us squarely in the middle of the film. I wasn’t in a cinema in Birmingham; I was in the Rocky Mountains. The camera runs through an early battlefield. It stares, literally unflinching, at that bear-mauling. It climbs a frozen waterfall, hurls itself off a cliff, or just lingers voyeuristically on a conversation.
Not that there’s many of those. DiCaprio’s is primarily a physical performance, walking, running, riding, swimming and just generally surviving in the frozen wilderness. Most of the talking is done by the supporting cast. Tom Hardy smoulders hatefully as Fitzgerald, the cold-hearted and sadistic villain of the piece, while Will Poulter (you know, one of the kids from Son of Rambow) impresses as Bridger, Fitzgerald’s opposite number, all innocence and inexperience.
At it’s heart, The Revenant is spectacle. It is the spectacle of nature, with Alberta filling on for the sublime beauty and hostility of the American frontier. It is the spectacle of survival, of Hugh Glass doing absolutely anything to survive, from eating raw bison liver to pulling out a horse’s guts so he can use it as a sleeping bag.
Perhaps more than that, though, it is an exercise in immersion. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has crafted what may be the most immersive film I’ve ever seen. It’s one thing to forget that you’re sat in a cinema for a couple of hours; quite another to feel the freezing cold of the Rocky Mountains and wonder if you’ll ever be warm again. Who needs 3D, eh?