The Philosophers’ Club. Where films, books and other topics are discussed with the intention of getting to the heart of things

 

Beware of possible spoilers!        

Much praise has been hailed at Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. It has already taken the Golden Globe for Best Director and Best Actor in a Drama Motion Picture and received a further 12 nods from the Oscars league. So, naturally I’ve been curious to see what all the fuss is about.

For those of you expecting a typical Hollywood adventure epic, you will be disappointed. There is a lot of grunting, foaming at the mouth, eye language and bodily mutilation — nearly all from DiCaprio’s side — but very little in the way of dialogue or grandiloquent action scenes. Likewise, those expecting a historical account of the 19th-century American fur trapper and adventurer, Hugh Glass, should stick with a good biography instead.

Revenant is none of these things. What it is, is a journey, for the audience to take a privileged peek at the conditions of isolation and survival which set man against man and also man against nature. The plot is simple enough. DiCaprio plays Glass, a skilful hunter who is part of a team of fur trappers trying to return to their trading post through the wilderness of the northern Louisiana Purchase after being ambushed by Native Americans. An unlucky encounter results in Glass being savaged by a female grizzly, making him a liability to the whole team. And so, in the spirit of the times, they make the necessary decision to leave him to die.

What follows is, as DiCaprio himself put it: ‘an epic journey of survival’ and ‘triumph of the human spirit’. Iñárritu’s Glass is not the historical figure. He wants the audience to be able to sympathise with his suffering and achieves this by making Glass a father with a half-native son, Hawk. This instantly brings a humanising quality to the character and adds a deeper dimension to the whole need for revenge.

Iñárritu makes his intentions clear when he says: ‘Hugh Glass is a very maternal character; he’s like a bear taking care of his cub’. So when tragedy strikes, there is that immediate sense of definite loss and instant isolation. To survive is to keep going, or rather ‘breathing’ as the film keeps saying, but the breath brings us back to the reality of our immediate situation, and in Glass’ case, it is the reality of having suffered defeat, sorrow and betrayal and the need to do something about it.

At 2h 36min long, you feel every bit of it, but not in an excruciating way. The desire to transmit a challenging piece of realism to the audience does at certain points become overly ambitious. For instance, the overtalked bear mauling scene felt overdone and even comical (perhaps that was just me though …). As did the part where DiCaprio jumps off a cliff on horseback right into a tree (again, I couldn’t stifle a slight chuckle). However, on reflexion, I’m beginning to think all that sniggering was just a nervous response to the film’s competence for projecting a realistic atmosphere — something that modern-day audiences are increasingly becoming estranged from.

This brings me to the film’s quality. The cinematography is not so much breathtaking as it is committed and honest. What you’re seeing is filmmaking shot in natural light, with long takes and few cuts, giving us a chance to absorb Glass’ environment. You’re also mercifully spared the now habitual overreliance on CGI (computer-generated imagery). Many of the scenes witnessed are very much real, human-generated and happened outside the safe confines of a virtual landscape.

Whatever you may think of the story, The Revenant deserves acclaim for the sheer daring of its director and cast. It’s not immaculate and it doesn’t really aim to please, only to generate something more authentic that audiences will remember. The performances are subtle, and you’ll have to look really close to understand the brilliance of someone like Tom Hardy who plays the conniving John Fitzgerald, or the effort involved from an experienced and dedicated actor like Leonardo DiCaprio to pull off eating raw bison liver (which was apparently ‘incredibly disgusting’) and agree to have himself soaked in freezing cold waters.

Revenant is unique. But unique doesn’t straightforwardly mean good, it means rare. This is a special film that demands a forgiving and patient audience. There are no defining performances or sweeping battle scenes, instead it is a dedicated endeavour to convey the life of man and the life of nature and everything that falls in between the two.