Friday, January 8, 2016

‘The Revenant’ triumphs as realistic, gritty survival epic

By Steve Crum
Forgive me, Charles Portis and John Wayne, but The Revenant should be subtitled True Grit. However, labeling this gritty action spectacle “revenant” is also very apt since it refers to “one that returns after death or after a long absence.” That definition fits the epic, 2 hours-36 minutes, factual saga told in The Revenant.
Adapted from Michael Punke’s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, the screenplay was co-written by the director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu (director and co-writer of last year’s Oscar winner, Birdman) and Mark L. Smith. The original story is based on the real life experiences of legendary fur trapper Hugh Glass. The “revenge” aspect plays out between Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his nemesis, fellow trapper John Fitzgerald, portrayed by Tom Hardy. 
By the time Glass is faced with survival, driven by revenge, he has experienced a Sar Ah (Native American tribe) attack and slaughter of his hunting party (they are hunting for pelts in the Louisiana Purchase wild) and then an unbelievably vicious bear mauling. Surely I am not spoiling the plot since that bear sequence is repeatedly shown in the trailer. Abandoned and left to die by Fitzgerald, Glass is on his own, crawling at first, fighting snow, more Indians (this time the Arikara), and starvation. 
DiCaprio has little to say during the second third of the movie, since he is literally alone. That his character’s throat was damaged during the bear attack reduces his voice to raspy whisper. Yet DiCaprio speaks loudly with his eyes and body language. Glass’s goal is to survive, eventually reach civilization, recover his health, and then wreak havoc on Fitzgerald. 
A real plus of The Revenant is its expansive cinematography focusing on the gorgeous waterways, forests and mountains of the story’s setting of Montana and South Dakota circa 1823. Surprise, surprise. Actual filming was in 12 different locations encompassing three countries: the United States, Canada, and Argentina. Check out those repeated shots angled upward into the tall trees. Let’s give cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki his due here. 
Iñárritu's realistic approach to filming, sans any computer generated effects, added to the difficulty of shooting on location. It took its toll on everyone involved, including the cast. (Several crew members quit or were fired during the production.) Natural lighting was used. The result is telling, a visual treat. Be forewarned that the visuals are sometimes realistically ghastly. 
Don’t expect a passionate love story or even Leonardo batting a passing eye at some lady of the trail. This is a man’s man movie absent of romance—or even comedy. (OK, there is a tad of humor when Glass encounters a friendly Indian midway through.) Alert, however. There is a female-driven sequence that turns out to be a plot definer. Other than that, it is grit-on. 
It is also my choice for Best Picture Oscar of 2015, even though it is opening nationwide today. (The Revenant qualifies since it had limited openings late last year.) Add another Best Director Oscar honor for Iñárritu. And DiCaprio’s performance is Best Actor worthy. The Revenant is quite an achievement.  
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: A

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