It’s fitting that The Revenant pushes the limits of film, ceasing mercifully only just before breaking, because that’s exactly what happens to Hugh Glass. If you’re one of the people behind the film, crafting it, then you have to push the limit: you’re Alejandro Iñárritu or Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off the exquisite Birdman and arguably at the height of your career, seemingly happy to be shouldered with the weight of expectation or otherwise just left with no choice. If you’re one of the people in front of the film, watching it, you want it to push the limit: if you’re watching The Revenant in the first place, you’re likely quite certain that you’re in for a challenging watch and not a brain-switched-off actioner.
But if you’re one of the people inside the film, acting in it, living it, then being pushed to the limit means actually being pushed to the limit. Throughout 2015 stories of the extremely arduous on-location filming of Revenant trickled down from that remote region of Alberta, from the torrential rains of British Columbia, from the freezing southernmost tip of Argentina. Ten people quit or were fired during production. In July Hollywood Reporter ran an article about the brutal conditions on set, prompting more and more questions about the safety precautions and the direction of the film. Blurbs from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and the rest of the cast make The Revenant shoot sound more life-threatening than that of Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo; Iñárritu himself has since taken to referring to the cast and crew as “survivors”.
Now, at the end of the year, all of that is up on the screen in a firsthand, visceral tale with more force than any other 2015 release (besides Star Wars — quite a bit of Force in that one). Hugh Glass is a frontiersman and tracker in an expedition party journeying through the unending wilderness of North America, accompanied by his Native American son and increasingly more volatile characters within the party. The word harsh doesn’t do justice to their existence on this plane of (un)natural punishment, as if Revenant filters Jeremiah Johnson through the lens of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. In the very first scene the company is besieged by a vicious tribe of Native Americans hunting one of their own. The sequence is impressive, terrifying, heart-pounding, real.
…and the next scene manages to outdo it, offering what must be one of the most harrowing sequences ever filmed. It’s very, very hard to watch Glass being mauled by a gigantic grizzly bear. It’s even harder to imagine being Glass himself, or even being DiCaprio acting as Glass, but more and more The Revenant asserts this as its most compelling feature: the thing on the screen is so genuine, despite the back-of-your-head-knowledge that this is Leonardo DiCaprio and a CGI bear, that it becomes nearly as harrowing an ordeal for the people sitting comfortably in a movie theater. The arduousness of the filming process comes through in the final product in such a way that scenes like this are truly exhausting, truly challenging. DiCaprio is so all-in as Glass that we’re all-in with him, and for that sequence we practically have to fight like Glass fights to be free of the monster attacking us.
The Revenant is based partially on Michael Punke’s novel of the same name, and the story told is that of 1971’s Man in the Wilderness. Okay, you say, so it’s a remake. Sure, Richard Harris once led this tale (as “Bass”, not “Glass”), journeying back from the brink of death to hunt the man who left him there. Man in the Wilderness has a little religious bent to it, one that we surmised might arise in Revenant due to Iñárritu’s penchant for mystical, transcendent movements in many of his films.
We weren’t wide of the mark in our speculations about religion in The Revenant, but Iñárritu’s version of the story is just a completely different beast. It’s not a remake at all. The vision is so clear and so much of it is transmitted to the viewer that the temptation arises to say something about it like “you don’t just watch it — you experience it”. But lots of people say that about lots of movies — we said it ourselves this year about The Walk — and on the spectrums of realism and intensity The Revenant deserves more than turgidity. It doesn’t need any external bombast, even if it comes from a place of genuine enchantment, because the film itself has more beauty and opportunity for connection than any single film needs. On one hand it’s escapism, effortlessly drawing you in as it hurtles along the frontier; on the other The Revenant is the opposite of escapism, because this hell on earth is the last place to which any of us would flee.
If the ending leaves something to be desired it might be because The Revenant exists in a state of fluidity, always moving, rarely feeling cut up or pasted together. The same thing happened with Iñárritu’s Birdman, which literally never stops in its single-take tracking shot. How do you put a stopper on something in motion and provide a sense of satisfaction at the same time? Arguably this is not the goal of The Revenant, and arguably Birdman did have a satisfying ending. The frontier film isn’t interested in satisfying you. It’s interested in shaking you, in bringing you into the toughest place on the planet and watching how you fare alongside some of the toughest people on the planet. The bear scene is only one of a dozen sequences of never-before-seen intensity. DiCaprio and Hardy are fantastic, but it’s Iñárritu and cinematographer Lubezki who make The Revenant a force of nature. See it, definitely, but prepare yourself before you see it. Not doing so could be a fatal mistake.