The Revenant: the best film Terrence Malick never made

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


The Revenant
Cineplex Cinemas
4 out of 5

Following sprawling, complicated narrative endeavors like Babel and the awards-winning Birdman, director Alejandro G. Iñarritu goes back to basics. Like, the extreme basics.

The Revenant is about two of mankind’s most powerful motivators — survival and revenge — and set in the 19th century American frontier (actually Alberta) in the dead of winter.

Based on real events, The Revenant follows the trials of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, desperate for an Oscar), a fur trader whose expedition is decimated by an angry Pawnee tribe looking for the white men who kidnapped the chief’s daughter. Glass’ problems are just starting: as the men try to get to safety, the trapper is viciously attacked by a bear in one of the film’s more stunning and cringe-inducing sequences.

Glass survives by the skin of his teeth, and is left under the care of his son and a couple of hunters, one of whom (Tom Hardy) may not have his best interest at heart. Some unpleasantness takes place and Glass is abandoned, all but dead.

Turns out the power of the human spirit has nothing on a man’s thirst for retribution, and Glass crawls from the ashes to get back at the men who wronged him. But first, there are wounds to patch, elements to contend with and a Pawnee search party that would rather shoot first and ask questions later.

Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s worst tendencies — turning his films into misery porn, encouraging actors to chew the scenery clean — make an appearance, but this time they either serve the story or are buried under the stunning images captured by cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki.

The Revenant is the first movie in a long while worth watching for the cinematography alone. Lubezki — who has won back-to-back Academy Awards for Birdman and Gravity — shot the entire film with natural light. The outcome is filled with remarkable images, some of which will become imprinted in your brain. “Chivo” is operating on a different plane, and we — as an audience — are tremendously lucky to witness him at the top of his game.

Perhaps because of Lubezki’s involvement, The Revenant could be described as a Terrence Malick movie but with an actual plot. Nature is as much an adversary as Tom Hardy and the Pawnee: never still, actively trying to kill you. DiCaprio acts accordingly, moaning, grunting and screaming his way through the film. It’s a very physical performance — the actor puts himself through the ringer, yet you never forget who he is. The Revenant gives DiCaprio his best shot to an Academy Award, but it’s not his best performance (that would be his amoral, manic Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street).

Tom Hardy as the film’s antagonist is more interesting. More a pragmatic frontiersman than an out-and-out villain, Hardy’s character doesn’t count on morals or the law’s limited reach to grant him security (Iñarritu offers very detailed context that explains his actions). Even the event that triggers the wrath of DiCaprio is somewhat accidental. Too bad one can’t understand half the dialogue because Hardy mumbles his way through the lines, as usual.

The best reason to watch The Revenant (in theatres, preferably) is the visceral thrills it provides. It’s cinema stripped to its core — which in an age of movie-making gimmicks and affectations, feels refreshing.