The Revenant is a miracle of moviemaking. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are like modern-day Michelangelos painting visuals of ferocious beauty. Their camera moves and glides in ways and into places that you have never seen before – incredibly the film was created using only natural light. Technically, The Revenant is a staggering accomplishment. Even as you watch, you wonder: how are they doing what they are doing.
The film is partially based on a 2002 book called The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge by Michael Punke, which in turn was inspired by the actual American frontiersman Hugh Glass. In 1823, while on an expedition in Missouri, Glass survived a mauling by a grizzly bear and became the stuff of legend.
In Iñárritu’s hands, this material becomes mythical, spiritual and horrifically bloody. The endless vistas of ice and green and water are tainted with red. Nature might be pitiless but men posses a special sort of savagery. There is no limit to the damage they inflict on each other. The few women we see are either silent or dead. This is a primeval world, inhabited by men, where life can only be nasty, brutish and short.
After Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear, his companions abandon him. The most vicious among them – Fitzgerald played by Tom Hardy – kills Glass’s son. Glass survives and pursues Fitzgerald to avenge himself and his family. Iñárritu’s mastery of the medium imbues grandeur into this sliver of a story. The first 45 minutes of the film are so immersive and gripping that I had to remind myself to breathe. But then, slowly, the magic starts to unravel. Western critics have accused The Revenant of being pain porn – Glass survives by eating raw fish, raw bison and at one point, he keeps warm by climbing into the carcass of a dead horse. Leonardo DiCaprio is utterly compelling but by now, you are emotionally disengaged from the film. You are admiring his endurance levels rather than his acting skills. By then, he suffered so much, I say, give him the Oscar already.
The extreme rigour and magnificent craft on display in The Revenant cannot disguise the emotional vacuum at its core. I marvelled at the film but I was unmoved by it. By the end, I was so fatigued by the violence that I wanted the characters to kill each other so we could all just go home.
But despite this, I think The Revenant is essential viewing. See it to see the possibilities of a movie camera.
Anupama Chopra is a well-known movie critic who reviews films at Film Companion