Retribution in the wilderness: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

If there is one thing Alejandro González Iñárritu has demonstrated over the past two years, it’s versatility. A radical departure from backstage Broadway in 2014’s Oscar-winning satire Birdman, his latest outing The Revenant is a vast, harrowing, and affecting survival epic helmed by an inspired Leonardo DiCaprio amid his ongoing search for an Oscar of his own. His first picture following a two-year hiatus, DiCaprio is not only faced with a problematic, physically demanding production, but a menacing Tom Hardy who, in his fifth picture of the year, saves his award-worthy best for last.

Based on the 2002 Michael Punke novel of the same name, The Revenant tells the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his gargantuan journey of revenge and retribution against the men who left him for dead following a severe encounter with a grizzly bear. Mangled, battered and on the brink of death, Glass finds a way to regain enough strength and drive to brave the elements and venture through the endless, unforgiving conditions of the American wilderness. They say it is the fate of glass to break; however The Revenant would seem to argue otherwise.

Immense anguish and hardships fall upon Glass, particularly when observing the chances of surviving the odyssean path that lies before him. The overall spectacle is violent, unrelenting and heavy, but thoroughly engrossing all the same.

Where the novel is said to contain a lot of “expository language”, the film adaptation allows exposition to be addressed through images and lack of dialogue. With DiCaprio delivering only a handful of lines throughout the film, resorting to a series of huffs, groans and numerous screams, the importance of dialogue attunes the ears of the audience whilst the central story is told predominantly in a visually striking manner.

The sense of realism is captured organically through the lack of professional lighting. The insistence on using natural light (of which only a couple of hours were available per day) dampens the atmosphere, the mood and the characters themselves. Shadows are enhanced while the colour palette becomes de-saturated and less polished. Contrarily, the heavily stylised dream sequences peppered throughout the picture give off a different mood. Able to capture both the raw naturalism and the expressionistic characteristics through manipulation of daylight speaks volumes of the artistic endeavours of Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and others involved in this particular field.

Moreover, the in-favour long-take returns; this time not to seamlessly blend the entire picture, but simply to extend impactful scenes from time to time. This arguably renders The Revenant more advantageous as the stylistic technique can be exhibited precisely when deemed best for the overall narrative. Where it does come in to play, the payoff speaks for itself. Action sequences meticulously choreographed down to the precise placement of an arrow in the dirt make for some thrilling and immersive viewing, presenting a feeling of danger and death from every angle and with every step.

Shot through a heavily stylistic lens, there is a consistency through the film where the imagery juxtaposes and somehow contradicts the narrative. For example, the landscape shots that showcase the vast and breathtaking scenery in all their glory are visually spectacular, however all too quickly the sense of amazement turns into that of isolation and dread. Similarly, the stunning forestation shots offer some satisfying symmetry and pleasant tranquility before the feeling of claustrophobia and threat seep in. The beauty and ominousness of the imagery tell a story in their respective ways, resulting in a hellish version of BBC’s Planet Earth.

Exploring the human spirit and the human condition, The Revenant is bold and courageous in its stature and thematic undertakings. Focusing heavily on both the survivalist instincts and the cowardice of man, the film is able to personify our innate fight or flight response through juxtaposing character arks.

Animalistic at times, Glass hunts, devours and gnaws on whatever he can find in a regressive manner, encapsulating the circumstances he faces individually and a possible overarching observation of the correlation of man and beast.

A lot can be taken from the prominent metaphorical and symbolic buildup of the picture. Taking in some possible religious metaphors and connotations, the dream sequences utilise montage and soundscape to cleverly address the films underlying meanings.

Following a grueling shoot that has become a yet another drawcard for fascinated audiences, the finished product is a testament to Iñárritu’s vision and daring nature as a director. He has entered his own conceived version of hell to produce the epic, only to emerge victorious at the other end with another sensational experience. It will undoubtedly be too much for some audiences, however the technical mastery and boldness on display from every aspect is worthy of immense praise at the very least.

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