Film review: The Revenant is bleak, brutal and beautiful

Based on the real-life story about frontiersman Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the film's true star is director Alejandro G Iñárritu's camera.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays frontiersman Hugh Glass. 20th Century Fox
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The Revenant

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson

Four stars

Alejandro González Iñárritu's frontier survival saga The Revenant seeks to join the ranks of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now: movies that take some of their primal madness from their raw, remote natural landscapes – in this case, the Canadian Rockies.

The making of those movies are mythic tales in their own right, and The Revenant arrives with its own tall tales of on-set tussles and actors' derring-do.

After confining himself largely to the interior of a Broadway theatre in Birdman, winner of the Best Picture Oscar last year, Iñárritu – and his maverick cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki – opts for the open air of the West, circa 1823, in a loose adaptation of Michael Punke's 2002 novel about ­frontiersman Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The result is some of the most impressive filmmaking of last year, or any year, as Iñárritu and Lubezki stretch their fluid long takes down river rapids and into the kind of clashes – a grizzly bear attack, a tribal ambush – never before portrayed on screen with this kind of awe-­inspiring, naturally lit ­virtuosity.

DiCaprio is not the film's true star – it is Iñárritu's camera. He never lets us forget it, not only in the staggering single-takes, but by allowing characters to look into the lens, sometimes fogging it with their breath. The Revenant earns your admiration, only to lose it by continually insisting upon it.

Glass is guiding traders in their pursuit, through hostile territory, of beaver pelts. Camped beside a river, the group is attacked by Ree tribesmen, searching for a kidnapped daughter.

With mayhem and savagery all around, Iñárritu’s balletic camera sweeps through the slaughter and eventually drifts down the river with a small band of survivors. Among them are Glass; his Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck); the company’s leader, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson); a callow youngster (Will Poulter); and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).

The scene is the first taste of what is in store: the throbbing intensity of survival, played out across harsh, wintry terrain, in a series of flights and pursuits between men seeking a variety of vengeances.

Shifty and selfish, ­Fitzgerald is the obvious villain-in-­waiting – Hardy patiently waits for his ­opportunity to reveal a ­deeper savagery and, let loose in the wild, he does not ­disappoint. Neither does DiCaprio, in an exceptionally ­committed ­portrayal of Glass’s great ­determination.

But no one is more in rhapsody over the manliness of the mission than Iñárritu. His bleak and beautiful movie is overwrought, but also soaked through with the brutality of the frontier and the tragedy of its indigenous people who carry the deepest horrors of the land.

The Revenant is out in cinemas on January 7.

* The Associated Press