The story of the making of The Revenant, the new film by Birdman’s Alejandro G. Innaritu, has rather overtaken the movie itself. Shot in horrendous conditions in remote, freezing parts of Canada and Argentina, it saw multiple crewmembers quit or get fired as Innaritu went over schedule, over budget and over the top in pursuit of perfection, while its lead, Leonardo DiCaprio, claimed he was under constant threat of hypothermia. Well, whatever pains it took, the result is a stunning achievement. It’s not a perfect film, thick with atmosphere but occasionally wanting for story, but it has an overwhelming cruel beauty that will leave you wrung-out.
Set in 1823, it sees DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, part of a hunting party collecting animal pelts in the Louisiana wilderness, which will net them a fortune when they get home. However, a local Native American tribe resents the theft and ambushes the party, killing half of them – the execution of the ambush scene is worthy of spontaneous applause – and sending the rest running for their lives. Glass’ week gets progressively worse when he’s attacked by a bear, then left for dead by his no-good colleague Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who also murders his son just to cement his bastardry. The rest of the film sees Glass, barely alive, on a mission for revenge.
Up until the moment Glass is left, the film is a rush, constantly in motion, characters established on the go, gorier than a butcher’s scraps bin, a ceaseless fight against man, beast and nature. It’s a five-star opening hour. After that, though, Innaritu starts to get a bit mired in his method, putting Glass through a lot of suffering to show the power of his drive for retribution, but losing the momentum of the chase. It starts to become more about how the film was made more than what it’s making. The skill on show is breathtaking, but you should be watching the story first and foremost. DiCaprio, it must be said, is dynamite, rarely speaking – the bear having taken much of his throat – but eloquent in his straining silence. The story issues aside, and they’re far from fatal, The Revenant remains a near-essential watch for its power to throw you so absorbingly into another world and leave you needing a long lie down and a stiff drink.