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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 12.14.15] action drama western adventure

The coverage about the making of The Revenant has been fascinating to follow. Stories of cast and crew suffering through the elements, the production changing locations due to lack of snow, director Alejandro González Iñárritu's obsession with shooting the movie with no artificial light and most recently, Emmanuel Lubezki spoke on how making the movie was a transcendent experience.

It's no wonder that on a technical level alone, The Revenant is a spectacular achievement (it's too early to throw around the word "masterpiece" but don't be surprised to hear it uttered in the same sentence as the movie's title in the coming years). The opening scene alone is a more masterfully captured and exciting action sequence than anything any of the year's tent pole pictures have put on the big screen. And it's not showy about it. I was leaning forward in my seat following and action and didn't realize that the entire scene was one long take until it was almost over. I didn't give it, or any of the other technical marvels of the movie, another thought until after I walked away because I was riveted by the drama.

Written in part by Iñárritu along with Mark L. Smith (who also wrote the upcoming Martyrs remake - let that sink in for a moment) and based on a book by Michael Punke which also takes inspiration from a real event, this begins as a tale of adventure, turns into a story of survival and revenge before, ultimately, ending as a tale of redemption. At its centre is Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a guide who, along with his son, helps trappers traverse the vast and largely uncharted wilderness. The large group of trappers is caught off guard by a raiding group of Native Americans who are searching for a woman who was kidnapped from her home.

The searchers leave in their wake a trail of dead but a few of the men manage to get away up river where their numbers are picked off further. Eventually, the small group of survivors are forced to abandon the majority of their furs in an attempt to make their way through the wilderness and back to base camp. Along the way, Glass is mauled by a bear (not raped as some stories ridiculously suggested) and left behind with John (Tom Hardy) and Jim (Will Poulter). The two men have strict instructions that they are to care for Glass until he dies and then give him a proper burial. Instead, the jaded John kills Glass' son, buries Glass in a shallow grave assuming he'll soon be dead and convinces gullible young Jim to go along with the plot.

Until this point, The Revenant is action packed, brutal and straight forward in its storytelling but it's here, the point where Glass is left for dead, that the movie takes on an almost metaphysical tone. Glass rises from the earth as a man with the sole intent of revenge and that purpose keeps him alive for the remainder of the movie's running time. He does whatever necessary to stay alive long enough to find John - and I mean whatever is necessary.

Another filmmaker would be satisfied with a straight forward revenge tale (and The Revenant is an excellent one) but Iñárritu offers up a far more layered and emotionally complicated tale of revenge and redemption with a leading character that is both charismatic and unlikable. DiCarprio fully immerses himself in the role of Glass, a man who is a bit of an enigma. We never quite figure out how he ended up in the frontier to begin with though we do get to see why he stayed. And then there's John whose story is also more complicated than he lets on and Hardy, an actor who we've already seen capable of doing wonders with few words, is fantastic. It's in the moments of silence that The Revenant begins to mark itself as a different beast, a story that is as interested in the act of revenge as in the motivation for that revenge.

If you were to file movies by theme, The Revenant falls somewhere between Bruce Beresford's Black Robe, Terrence Malick's The New World and Paul Thomas Anderson There Will Be Blood: tales of uncharted frontiers that are as much about individual survival as they are about the cosmos. The Revenant is the most brutal of the trio, a movie that doesn't hold back the grit and violence of the west but also a movie that is far more beautiful, both visually and thematically, than I could have imagined possible.

The Revenant opens in limited release December 25 and expands nation wide January 8.

Recommended Release: The New World

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