Cometh the man, cometh the moment. Ever since Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for an Oscar for his touching portrayal of Johnny Depp’s mentally-handicapped brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in 1993 I’ve been wondering when the erstwhile Boy Wonder of cinema would slough off that bothersome tag. He’s threatened to do so in a raft of vehicles since but somehow I’ve always still seen him as an overgrown boy. Until now.
In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s epic saga, co-scripted by Inarritu himself, he’s finally come of age as a seasoned performer who can convey angst as well as his more familiar Gatsby-like camaraderie. The fact that he does so by pulverising both body and soul alike is the icing on the cake. But a very disturbing cake it is, and not for those of a sensitive disposition.
Many people wondered how Inarritu was going to top last year’s Birdman but he’s done so here in a film which is almost primitive in its brutal beauty. The controversial director has never pulled his punches when it comes to showing life in all its vicissitudes and he certainly doesn’t do so here. In fact, The Revenant will probably come to be seen as his magnum opus.
This is Jack London on steroids. It’s Robinson Crusoe with schadenfreude. It’s survival with a capital S.
DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a doughty frontiersman on a fur-hunting expedition in Dakota’s eerie wilderness in the 1820s.
The cast also includes Domhnall Gleeson, Tom Hardy and debut performer Forrest Goodluck as Glass’s half-native American son, Hawk.
The film throws us in at the deep end when Glass is savaged by a grizzly bear in one of the film’s most gruesome scenes.
He’s left for dead by his colleagues, against whom he swears revenge. He also promises to avenge the killing of his son.
The manner in which he comes through all this may strike many viewers as outlandishly far-fetched but the film is based on a true story, however many liberties Inarritu takes to embellish it – or shock us.
At 156 minutes long, it’s almost as much an endurance test for the viewer as it is for Glass himself but there are many compensations, courtesy of cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki’s atmospheric snow-scapes and Inarritu’s unflinching command of his material.
There’s a subplot about another native American searching for his daughter and also some surreal hallucinatory vignettes. The main character’s indomitable will to survive is the glue that holds all these together. It drives the film, right up to the stomach-churning climax. Some of you might find this too graphic by far.
The Revenant is a tale both of retribution and redemption. Inarritu hopscotches from one to the other with commendable flair, hooking you into his bruising scenarios almost against your will as all occasions seem to conspire against Glass during his baptism by fire – or rather ice – in this most punishing of landscapes in the winter of his discontent.