Film review: The Revenant

David Gritten / 14 January 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews The Revenant, a survival saga starring Leonardo DiCaprio.



It’s fair to say we’ve never seen Leonardo DiCaprio on screen as he appears in his new film The Revenant – as a tough, bedraggled frontiersman who hauls his battered, severely injured body across miles of snowy terrain to find the man who left him for dead.

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This radical departure has made him the current favourite to win the best actor Oscar – finally, after almost two decades as a leading man. It comes as a momentary surprise to realise he hasn’t won one yet.

One sees why DiCaprio’s performance has attracted awards buzz. It’s striking work in an impressive, visually stunning film. 

The Revenant is a loose re-telling of the true story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper in the American midwest who in 1823 was part of a hunting expedition ambushed by Pawnee tribesmen. He and a handful of others barely survived, but then Glass was attacked brutally by a grizzly bear and gravely injured. 

The expedition leader left behind a few men, including Glass’s half-Native American son to stay with him during what were expected to be his final hours. But one of them, Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy), grew impatient, shot the son dead, and abandoned Glass to his fate.

His is a story of survival and revenge, brought to the big screen by director Alejandro Iňárritu, working alongside director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki; together they helped the stylishly arresting Birdman win a best picture Oscar last year. Each man also took home another Academy Award in his own right.

With these two at the helm, expectations for their new film were high. And in technical terms, those expectations are comfortably met; The Revenant is a remarkable piece of work, often thrilling to watch.

The first Pawnee attack is a virtuoso set-piece, breathless and exhilarating. It’s one long tracking shot, with the camera darting between various combatants. The bear’s attack on Glass is terrifying and jolting; even from the comfort of your seat, you can feel the dread and danger.

Lubezki shot the film using only natural light, which gives it a chill, wintry feel that seeps into the bones. And Iňárritu certainly knows how to make the most of the bleakly ravishing scenery (the film was shot in British Columbia and Argentina). 

Kudos all round, then. Yet in many ways The Revenant feels less than the sum of its parts. That’s decidedly not a reference to its length; it runs for 156 minutes, and could easily have shed half an hour. But in essence this is a simple story, and after that dazzlingly eventful first act, it becomes a long haul in all senses of the phrase.

As for DiCaprio, he’s in the lead role to sell tickets, something he does reliably. But is Glass a role that plays to his strengths? Hidden behind a straggly beard and long, lank hair, it’s hard to discern DiCaprio’s presence. This is an actor whose trump card is a gift for bending and spinning his lines to highlight the essence of his characters; yet there are stretches of The Revenant when he literally has nothing to say.  

Maybe there’s a certain logic in this, for a film that is so visually overwhelming. Yet Glass’s story, remarkable though it is, lacks the narrative drive to keep us consistently engrossed. There’s much to admire in The Revenant, but be warned; it’s also a long, hard haul.

Read David Gritten's piercing film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today. - See more at: http://www.saga.co.uk/magazine/entertainment/film/reviews/peanuts#sthash.JApsUhWm.dpuf
Read David Gritten's piercing film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today. - See more at: http://www.saga.co.uk/magazine/entertainment/film/reviews/peanuts#sthash.JApsUhWm.dpuf

Read David Gritten's piercing film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.

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