The Revenant (2015) – A grandly immersive cinematic experience; DiCaprio goes full “Daniel Day-Lewis”

dicaprio in the revenant

It’s not very often that you see an actor engaged in a gory struggle with a CGI bear (or any other animal for that matter) in a film and manage to make it utterly convincing and disturbing. DiCaprio does exactly that and in the process makes you wonder if it’s actually a real bear. This scene takes place in the first 20 minutes and is the “major event” in the film that results in our protagonist being nearly dead with gashes in several places which includes one in the throat that would let out all the water if he drinks it, and a broken leg. There were multiple occasions where I gasped in horror and made me wonder how they pulled off those sequences. DiCaprio’s performance is so frightfully realistic and dominating that I hope they finally give him the elusive Best Actor trophy that he badly deserves.

In one of my cinema discussions sometime ago with a friend of mine, we talked about how the most good-looking male actors in Hollywood might have a hard time trying to get someone to seriously consider their hidden acting skills as well and that they are not just a bunch of pretty faces trying to sell a film to mainstream audiences. Would they excel in meaty and dark roles? The names that came up, naturally, were Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and DiCaprio’s. We both came to the conclusion that this generalization doesn’t apply to DiCaprio as he is one of these “pretty boys” who can rise above that definition and has the ability to dismantle the so-called “playboy” image accorded to him by many and exceed our expectations in the acting department. He has been doing that for a while and is noticeably getting better with every film.

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Alejandro González Iñárritu’s  follow-up to last year’s critically acclaimed Birdman is another tale of a man undergoing an existential crisis. At the heart, it’s a classic revenge tale that is a cut above the standard revenge fare. The story is based partly on Michael Punke’s novel of the same name and was inspired by the life of a frontiersman named Hugh Glass during the 19th century. An attack from the Native American Indians forces his hunting party to flee from they have been camping for a while onto another location in the wilderness. Strayed away from the rest of the group, Glass is set upon viciously by a grizzly bear. Even though he manages to kill it, the attack leaves him nearly dead.

A cold-hearted former criminal called John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) suggests leaving him behind but their Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) changes his mind and assigns three men – Fitzgerald, Jim Bridger and Glass’ son Hawk – to look after him and give him a proper burial if he dies. When Glass is left alone with Fitzgerald, the latter attempts to kill him but is stopped by Hawk. In the ensuing struggle, Hawk is killed and Glass is forced to watch it all helplessly. Fitzgerald then concocts a story about the Native Indians being nearby and persuades Bridger to leave with him while he buries Glass alive. Glass somehow manages to crawl out the hole and goes through several trying circumstances that test not only the limits of his endurance but also his sanity.

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The film benefits mostly from DiCaprio’s dedicated performance, Inarritu’s nuanced direction and Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking photography. It’s precisely because of Lubezki’s involvement that the film have invited comparisons with some of Terence Malick’s films. Every cinephile is aware that Lubezki has worked on nearly all of Malick’s films that came out recently and some of the frames in this very much resembles those in Malick’s films such as The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life. I can also see the influence of some Werner Herzog films such as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God,  Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and even David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. By mentioning these films, I am in no way implying that Inarritu has copied their styles. The film is it’s own beast and bears (no pun intended) his distinctive signature.

Although it’s a simple revenge tale, Inarritu and his team of talented actors and crew members bring something fresh to the table. As we have already seen from some of Inarritu’s earlier films, they were always characterized by their spiritual themes and anguished protagonists. The Revenant is no exception and is primarily a story about survival, loyalty, parenthood and compassion. Some of the sequences are hard to watch, yes, but once they are over they have the ability to be oddly uplifting. In a film with such superior technical perfection, there is a chance of the actors’ performances getting lost amidst all the gorgeous images but DiCaprio seems hell-bent on ensuring that everyone take note of his equally mesmerizing performance and not keep track of how many takes were employed in each scene.

 

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