“He’s afraid. He knows how far I came to find him.”
Ursus Arctos Horribilis, better known as the grizzly bear, is a sub-species of brown bear, native to North America. An adult female grizzly weighs between 290-400lbs, and are fiercely protective of their cubs during their childhood. They have a constant spot in my Top 3 Things I Wouldn’t Pick A Fight With, along with Great White Sharks, and the former (at time of writing) UFC and WWE World Heayweight Champion, Brock Lesnar.
The choice not to pick a fight with an adult grizzly bear is not a luxury afforded to frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf On Wall Street), in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s frontier revenge epic The Revenant, based partially on Michael Punke’s novel The Revenant: A Novel Of Revenge, which itself is a fictionalisation of the true story of the real Hugh Glass.
Glass has been hired as a scout by Rocky Mountain Fur Company to help track a course through the mountains for the company’s fur trappers. The mission goes awry when the company is attacked by a hunting party from the Native American Pawnee tribe; an occurrence that was not unusual at those times. With their ranks decimated, the company have to find a new path home to their outpost. Glass moves ahead to identify safe passage, stumbling upon a grizzly with her two cubs, who quickly savages Glass and leaves him half-dead. The company attempt to try and take him back to the outpost, eventually realising that it’s a wasted effort. Glass’ son Hawk (a debuting Forrest Goodluck), an embittered John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) and young recruit Bridge (Will Poulter, Son of Rambow) are tasked to stay with him until he passes away, and bury him properly. However, Fitzgerald’s disgust with Hawk’s existence, combined with his blaming of Glass for the mission going awry, results in him killing Hawk and burying Glass alive, before making his escape.
The Revenant is Iñárritu’s first film since his Oscar-winning Birdman in 2014, and while they could not be more different in style, his unique direction is still easily identifiable. His use of beautiful, sweeping shots bring the reality of the stark landscapes to the forefront of the viewers’ attention and emphasize the scale of the terrain which his characters are dealing with. From the picturesque mountains to huge, snow-covered plains, the tremendous locations fully impart the aura of the Rocky Mountains and Yukon River, emphasized further by the tremendous costume design, to create an impressive feeling of authenticity. Personally, the most visually-striking aspect of the film for me was Iñárritu’s decision to film only using completely natural light. While it’s been documented that this choice resulted in a lot of complications for the timeline of the film’s production, the risk paid off. The Revenant has a beautiful look and feel to it, creating a rare cinematic expression where it really feels like you’re sitting next to the characters, seeing everything through your own eyes. This can create levels of discomfort during some of the more graphic scenes – make no doubt about it; this is a brutal film which accurately and intensely demonstrates the struggles of frontier life, and some scenes are not for the squeamish. The bear attack scene is long and terrifyingly realistic, but that is merely the tip of the iceberg in showing the depths to which one must go to survive in this harsh environment, and Iñárritu holds nothing back to put that across.
As for the characters, there are star turns across all fronts. DiCaprio’s solidification as one of the great actors of this generation is continued with his portrayal of Hugh Glass. The sheer level of adversity which Glass faces in his journey is overwhelming, starting even before the bear attack, and the emotional and physical portrayal of that is definitely worthy of DiCaprio’s Oscar nomination – and, dare I say it, worthy of a win. Glass goes through some of the most horrific ordeals I have ever seen portrayed in a film, which didn’t come with a “fantasy violence” warning at the beginning. A number of unusual dream sequences, brought about by the horrors which Glass has faced, are also tremendously well acted and put together, and work to enhance the viewer’s insight to Glass’ mental and emotional state of mind.
Hardy is also superlative, bringing a quiet danger to the role of Fitzgerald, and is at his best when interacting with Poulter’s Bridges. The chemistry between the two is fantastic, with Fitzgerald manipulating Bridges’ youth, inexperience and good nature to ensure that he gets his way. Goodluck also puts in a solid effort for his debut, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here. I was initially disappointed that Domhnall Gleeson appeared to be relegated to a minor supporting role as Captain Andrew Henry, but (without giving too much away), I was overjoyed to see that the character comes into his own with a stunning sequence towards the final act.
There is an important undercurrent to the tale of The Revenant, beyond the story of a man seeking vengeance, and it’s the story of the indigenous people of America. As previously mentioned, Glass’ son Hawk is mixed race; Glass had a relationship with a woman from the Native American Pawnee tribe, which made his relationship with the Native American hunting parties of the American frontier – both Native American and Anglo-European – much more complex than meets the eye. Glass relies on the work from the frontier companies to make his living and support his son, and the work they do often leads to them clashing with Native American tribes. Glass’ colleagues also hold some aggressively racist views towards the Native American peoples, which causes the initial tension between Glass and Fitzgerald. As Glass’ journey continues, his encounters with people of the Pawnee tribes further reflect the complex relationships that the settling Europeans had with the Native Americans. As far as a subplot goes, it is beautifully played out; subtly weaving into the fabric of the main story and helping to change the direction of Glass’ ordeal on more than one occasion.
The Revenant is a bold and ambitious frontier epic, stunningly and brutally played out to perfection. A combination of some of this generation’s best acting talent, driven on by the incredible Iñárritu and his team, has created an essential piece of modern cinema that all film fans should endeavour to see.
And the bear is great.
This review was originally published by The Grade in 2016.