Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard

The juxtaposition of beauty and brutality seems to be high on the order of artistic aims for filmmakers dealing with 19th century America this season. While Tarantino decided to shoot – and exhibit, where possible – the tense, racially charged The Hateful Eight in glorious 70mm*, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu went well over schedule and, according to hearsay, pushed his cast and crew well past reason and comfort to produce this sprawling, meditative take on Michael Punke’s novel, The Revenant.

The Revenant draws on what we know of the life of mountain man Hugh Glass, played here by a determined Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1823, while part of a fur-trapping and trading expedition in the wilds of South Dakota, Glass was mauled by a bear. He survived the initial attack but was not expected to linger much longer, and so two volunteers stayed behind to guard and keep him company until he passed. For reasons history fails to agree upon, these two, Jim Bridger and a man we know now only as Fitzgerald, abandoned Glass while he still lived, taking all his equipment with them. In some kind of bloody-handed miracle, Glass not only survived, he crawled, unarmed and unsupplied, some 200 miles back to what then passed for civilisation.

Inarittu’s film takes that basic framework and steeps it in notions of cyclical retribution. Whereas the Glass of history seems to have merely wanted a few stern words with the men who left him, and his rifle back, the cinematic Glass is hellbent on revenge against Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) for murdering Glass’s half-Indian son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) in the course of his abandoning the stricken frontiersman. Thus Glass’s tribulations – and they are legion – have the added frisson of personal stakes; he doesn’t want to merely survive, but to put the treacherous Fitzgerald under his knife.

Never has suffering looked so beautiful. Utilising only natural light – a story well-documented elsewhere, so we wont dig too deeply into it here – Inarittu and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have created a work of sublime visual beauty, placing this brutal story of revenge beyond meaning against a seemingly endless parade of gorgeous natural landscapes. It works to make the physical horrors even more confronting. Glass doesn’t just have to put his body back together, a drawn out task accomplished through a number of primitive self-surgeries, it’s like he has to remember how to be human. He spends much of the film unable to walk, crawling on his hands, dragging his legs behind him, eating raw meat and drinking what water he can. Only gradually does he regain his physical prowess and the trappings of personhood.

All this pain is in service of a goal, of course – the killing of Fitzgerald and Bridger. The two men develop a queasy kind of father-son bond that darkly mirrors the blood-relationship of Glass and Hawk. Although the Bridger of history would go on to become quite a notable figure, here, played by Will Poulter, he is an untried youth, trying to do the right thing but dominated by the brutally pragmatic Fitzgerald. Bonded together by their crimes and their lies to Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) the expedition leader, they form a toxic paternal pairing, one where Bridger recognises the horrors that underpin Fitzgerald’s philosophy but is powerless against it.

There’s another vengeful and violent father in the mix, too: Elk Dog (Duane Howard), a leader of the Arikara tribe and in many ways the hand that sets the events of the film in motion, if inadvertently. The Revenant opens with a shocking, exhilarating attack on Henry’s expedition by Elk Dog and his men, and its this that sends the Europeans further into the wilderness, where Glass has his fateful bear encounter.

Elk Dog isn’t just a motive-free marauder, though; he’s beating the bushes for his daughter, who has been kidnapped by white trappers. And so we have our triumvirate of fathers: one avenging the dead, one poisoning the mind of the young, and one hoping to save the living. All perpetuating cycles of violence in service to the cycle of family, set against the great cycle of the natural world. For all its grandeur, its beauty, its savagery and its craft, The Revenant is essentially a story about families, and what happens when they are sundered. It just has a bear attack in it.

TRAVIS JOHNSON

*Sorry, Western Australian audiences, but we miss out on the groovy Roadshow experience. There’s not an operating 70mm projector in the entire state and, believe me, I looked.

One Response

  1. Anonymous

    It's a great pity those living outside Melbourne or Sydney can't experience The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Just came back from a showing and it was stunning. You can debate the film's merits either as a solo work or how it fits into Tarantino's oeuvre, but as a viewing experience it's hard to top. The overture, intermission and even glossy programme make going to the pictures seem an event rather than just a way to catch a new release, and therefore I probably can't be as objective as I normally would be, given my love of cinema as a it should be.

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