The Revenant: Man v Nature, Man v Man?

I decided to test the hype for myself: I went to see ‘The Revenant’ at the cinema last night, sitting on the front row, right in front of the Big Screen. I wasn’t put off by the preamble warning about blood and gore and detailed injuries: I knew this was a film about some guys enduring the hardships of nature and that there would be a few battles and some token bloodshed. All the hype is right, though. It is a bleak film.

Directed last year by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the film is in cinemas now and it’s likely to win Oscars. The acting, sound track, cinematography, make up and costume and direction are all exceptional.

You will never be on the receiving end of spoilers from my film reviews: I absolutely respect that you want to go to see a film, suspend your disbelief and enjoy it without some inconsiderate writer butting in to tell you what happens in the best bits and what you should think. So, I will lay down a few hors d’oeuvres- in more ways than one, and hope that you’ll want to go and see it for yourself. (Remember this pun for when you watch it!)

‘It begins with a bloody battle which makes Macbeth look like a church tea party.’

I am the right person to review this film: as a female, a vegan, an animal lover, a pacifist, a believer in human rights, I should not have enjoyed this film at all. There are so many reasons why I should have found it too shocking or gratuitous. But it is an honest film, and if you can accept all the blood and guts and focus on the screen, watching the tale unfold, accepting the depiction for the story it is, the film is outstanding.

It begins with a bloody battle which makes Macbeth look like a church tea party. This is a violent film and the setting is harsh and brutal, like the men’s lives. The story line is predictable: it is a picaresque. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), sets out to achieve something important to him, a task of love and duty, and he has skills as a tracker, so we know where his journey will take him. His arch-enemy, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), is wicked, ruthless, cunning and must pay the price for his deeds. Catharsis and confrontation are inevitable from the opening scenes.

There will be criticisms: it is, in many ways,  DiCaprio’s ‘Passion’- he suffers, martyr-like, for his pure love and  then he rises ‘from the dead’ to complete his mission. We even see him in a church with Christ crucified as a backdrop. But we accept that the film is a platform for a remarkable actor who has always been prodigious. You may have seen him in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ as a teenager in the intense role of Arnie Grape.

There are some almost unwatchable scenes in ‘The Revenant’, some involving animals, and some involving combat, slaughter and  violence. There are only two women in the film: a dead wife and a rape victim, so some might say this is something of an andro-centric film. However, I think it has a universal significance for it’s visual and allegorical link to the savagery of nature. The characters are important but never developed: we know as much about them at the end as we do in the first few minutes. They are there as part of nature, to pit their wits against its forces. But none of that matters. They represent aspects of humanity and human behaviour and the will to survive hardship and loss.

The acting of Hardy and DiCaprio is everything you would expect: two sublime performers, both in the scenes they are together and apart, they are two instinctive dramatic geniuses of our age. Performance is an integral part of what makes this film work aesthetically.

And then there is the setting.

The scenery is stunning: snowstorms, rushing rivers, tall pines, huge skies and all the forces that nature can throw at mankind. The animals suffer and are killed  for their skins, for food and they are there for man’s taking, use and abuse: there is prejudice and suspicion amongst men, but the film is about survival, and DiCaprio’s Glass does exactly that. He survives against all possible odds.

It is hard to believe that some scenes, such as the one with the bear, are created by CGI: they are so realistic. ‘The Revenant’ is best seen on a large screen – get seats in rows A or B! The power, impact and colours of nature are truly overwhelming, and there is an irony there too, as the film was made against a time bomb of global warming, as DiCaprio has been saying in interviews about the film.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is perfect and never obtrusive: much of the soundtrack, however, is silence, breathing, animal noises, the environment: all constant semiotics for the struggle between one  man and the elements or one man against another.

It is a brutal film, a shocking one, but we are safe in the hands of the actors: our journey is one where we readily believe the task Glass sets himself and, when the ending comes, it is exquisitely performed, the twists and turns highlighting hero meets villain against an unyielding backdrop. There is the reappearance of the ghost of ‘Braveheart’ in the last moments but the law of nature has triumphed and we forgive a moment of gratuitous sentimentality and revel in the power of the performance.

‘The Revenant’ is not a film for those who do not buy into the significance of the wilful traverse through an unkind environment, or Glass’ reasons for wanting revenge. It is not for those viewers who are easily shocked by the detailed gore or the harshness of man’s treatment of other men, women and animals. However, it is spectacular in its brutality and it’s a great film for those who enjoy breathtaking cinematography and consummate performances. I wonder if there are better male actors at the moment than Hardy and DiCaprio: I doubt it, as they are completely absorbing, credible and inspirational.

I hope the film wins many awards: it deserves to be remembered as a ground-breaking film on many levels: acting, directing, cinematography, sound, CGI. Nothing is held back: the excessive killing and bloodshed, the violence, the cruelty of nature and of mankind, and the battle of two forces, one against the other.The characters and the storyline, while not impressive for their depth, are detailed, perfectly delivered  and always moving.

I think it is, and will become, a great film of our time.


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