The Revenant is an emotionally and visually bleak film. In the panoramas of immense, empty snow-bound landscapes and in the raw, blood-and-guts close-ups, the utter harshness of this world is made abundantly clear.
The cinematography is stunning. The use of super-close-up where the actor’s breath fogs up the lens, or blood spatters across it lends a real immediacy to the scenes, putting the viewer right inside the action. Breathing also features significantly on the soundtrack, emphasising the struggle for life in this hostile environment.
The story, though, is much less satisfying and eventually tips into the ridiculous by piling on ever more hardship and misery. Fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo diCaprio) is seemingly mortally wounded (in what was presumably an uncharacteristically careless moment) having been savaged by a protective mother bear. Timescales are a bit loose, but Glass’s recovery seems improbable and inconsistently speedy. Hypothermia, hunger and infection shadow a nightmarish journey as he seeks revenge on the venal Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the guard force set to watch over him – and bury him in the event of his expected death.
Glass recalls a native American saying about how stable tree trunks are, even when the branches may seem frail. This recurring theme mirrors his own almost superhuman resilience and determination. Yet, Glass also meets a native American who, looking at his wounds, acutely observes that he is dying on the inside (both mentally and physically). Vengeance is all that’s left, willing him forward.
The film leaves the viewer in no doubt it’s very much a man’s world, with women relegated to chores or rape. Life is hard, gritty and brutal. Blood, pain and extreme violence are commonplace and there’s a real danger of glorification as a result. Yet the revenge, when it finally comes, is strikingly downbeat and empty.
A swathe of fine performances can’t outweigh an over-the-top, overlong story (nearly 2.5 hours). Despite being a gorefest (or “pain porn” as it’s been memorably described), it remains watchable largely because of the beautiful camerawork and a sense of artistic ambition.