Leonardo DiCaprio and co. went through hell to make “The Revenant.” The shoot was shot in sequence in difficult locations (originally in Canada, the crew was forced to go to Argentina in search of snow), the budget went over by multiple millions, the schedule for filming was extended from March until August (forcing actor Tom Hardy to drop from the planned “Suicide Squad” film) and many members of the crew quit. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu refused to use digital effects and to make the film shoot as real as possible to convey the feeling of survival after being left for dead.
Well, consider that one accomplishment of the movie.
“The Revenant” is indeed a story of survival as a fur trapper, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a bear and left for dead by one of his companions, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Seeking revenge for this and other affronts, Glass must overcome his wounds and brave the harsh winter wilderness to achieve his revenge.
Nature here is simultaneously gorgeous and horrific (DP Emmanuel Lubezki used only natural light for the film). It is unforgiving, but also not malevolent, given preference to no one, just simply being. In that way, Glass is facing his own power to endure as he is tested again and again.
The violence in the film is astounding, some of the most brutal and realistic to ever be on screen. As the confrontations between different Native American tribes, the French, the fur traders and the English all escalate (plus bears!), the viewer comes to realize that the film is stating that violence is inherently part of the human condition, as indisputable a force as nature’s abject cruelty. The strength of Glass’ spirit then is being tested against both of these unyielding forces, the inherent cruelty of man and the harshness of nature.
Another strong theme is that of children. The mother bear who attacks Glass is trying to protect her young. Glass himself has a half-Native American son. The fur the traders collect is meant to be used to feed their families. This caring for youth, the hope to pass safety and joy to the next generation, feeds the film with strength and heart. It gives motivation to Glass and others to endure the cold and the violence.
The film feels like a Native American fable, telling the simple story of a man risen from the dead who travels the wilderness to find revenge. The viewer can almost hear the narrator whisper the tale to them near a campfire. The openness of the plot leaves lots of room for interpretation into what exactly the theme of the film is, and Iñárritu does not tip his hand towards any definitive conclusions. This works towards the film’s betterment and detriment, for as beautiful and investing as the journey is, the viewer is left with a feeling of “What was that all for?” at the conclusion if they are unable to discern it’s meaning for themselves.
Nevertheless, in terms of filmmaking craft, the film is a masterpiece, a sprawling journey that illuminates camerawork, lighting, sound, visual effects, acting and writing. It’s a great movie spectacle, one that should not be missed for the serious film fan.