CGI has become so advanced these days that it is now possible to make entire movies without ever leaving the studio. Movies like 300 and Sin City are shot entirely in front of green screens with 100% digital backgrounds. When CGI is done well it blends seamlessly into the film and you don’t even notice it. But every once in a while it’s refreshing to see a film that goes completely in the opposite direction.
Alejandro G. Inarritu’s 2015 hit The Revenant is such a film.
The Revenant was an extremely difficult film to make. It was filmed outdoors using only natural lighting, and tensions among cast and crew ran high. It went hugely over budget and filming ran behind schedule, since Inarritu’s decision to only use natural lighting meant that there were only a few hours per day that were suitable for filming.
The Revenant had all the ingredients of a disaster in the making. Troubled production, going over budget and behind schedule, tensions between volatile artists off-camera, these are the things legendary cinematic flops are made of.
And yet, The Revenant was a hit, earning rave reviews, winning three Academy Awards, and making its bloated budget back several times over.
The film follows the exploits of Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Glass is a member of a fur-trapping expedition who has the misfortune to be mauled by a bear. His comrades patch him up as best they can and take him with them for a while, but eventually come to the realization that they will not be able to get very far if they have to drag him along. So they leave a few people behind to stay with Glass, with instructions to bury him after he dies. But when a hostile Indian tribe approaches, the men left with Glass abandon him, thinking that he’ll be dead from his grievous injuries soon anyway.
But Glass stubbornly refuses to die, and swears vengeance on the men who abandoned him.
The film is loosely inspired by real events, but takes significant liberties with them. The movie is also based partly on the novel of the same name by a writer named Michael Punke. So if Punke’s novel fictionalized historical events to a certain degree, then the movie fictionalizes them even further.
There are two main differences between the book and the movie, and there will be spoilers for both ahead, so consider yourself warned.
The first main difference is that in the movie Glass has a son from a relationship with a Native American woman, and in the book Glass does not have a son. This is a good addition to the movie, since it gives Glass a clear motivation for revenge. Glass’s nemesis is a man named John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, who not only leaves Glass to die, but also kills his son right in front of him, while Glass is too weakened by his bear-inflicted wounds to strike back.
The second major difference concerns the film’s ending. In the movie, Glass hunts down and kills Fitzgerald, but in the book he does not. The book’s ending is a bit anticlimactic but more in keeping with the historical facts, since the real Glass did not kill Fitzgerald. This is because by the time Glass caught up to him, Fitzgerald had joined the US Army, and if Glass had then killed Fitzgerald, he himself would have been executed. Glass’s decision to spare Fitzgerald was less an act of mercy than of self-preservation.
Even though the book’s ending may be closer to the real events, it would not have worked very well as an ending for the movie. Audiences would have found it to be a huge letdown, and understandably so. It’s an example of something that works in literary form that doesn’t quite translate to the big screen. It’s easy to forget that in Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers, the heroic D’Artagnan does not kill his nemesis Roquefort. They bury the hatchet and end up becoming friends, but in most film adaptations of The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnan kills Roquefort. It is sometimes easier to accept things on the page than it is on the screen.
The film’s final battle between Glass and Fitzgerald is bloody and brutal, but there is a lot of lead-up to it. The Revenant has a hefty 156-minute running time, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that the filmmakers were showing off a bit. The movie could have lost 15-20 minutes and not have suffered for it. After a while it starts to feel overlong.
This is partly because there is not much of a story. Glass wants revenge, and he spends most of the movie trying to obtain it. Leo DiCaprio is magnetic as Glass, and much of the raw power of his performance rests in its physicality. Glass doesn’t have much dialogue because it’s hard to talk after a bear has torn your throat open. DiCaprio conveys Glass’s struggles through body language and facial expressions.
He is helped by the stunning landscapes, which are captured beautifully. The camerawork is nothing short of amazing, and the gorgeous cinematography combined with the natural beauty of the locations creates a movie that looks completely authentic.
That being said, The Revenant pulls no punches depicting the violence inherent in its story. It’s a gruesome film, and several scenes are hard to watch. When Glass uses gunpowder to cauterize his throat wound, or crawls inside the hollowed-out corpse of a horse to survive a snowstorm, it’s impossible not to cringe. One of the most disgusting moments is when he attempts to drink water and it gushes out the hole in his throat.
And then there’s the bear mauling. It’s probably one of the most vicious and realistic animal attacks ever put on film. It’s so well done that it’s easy to forget the bear is entirely CGI (the rest of the movie uses CGI sparingly but it’s not like the filmmakers could have gotten a bear to maul an actor in real life and then just sat there and filmed it).
Tom Hardy gives a compelling performance as the antagonist John Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is an ornery son of a bitch and many of his actions are despicable, but to my surprise I found myself not hating him. The film makes the viewer understand him on some level, and even sympathize with him. He’s not a likable character, but his actions are at least understandable.
DiCaprio’s performance in the title role is admirable but also problematic. Glass is a one-dimensional character. He has little personality and there’s not much reason to care about him beyond his single-minded quest for revenge. DiCaprio’s performance is more compelling than the character he plays, if that makes sense. The movie earned DiCaprio his first Academy Award, but did he really earn it? He certainly suffered quite a bit making the movie, but does he automatically deserve an Oscar because of that? As unpleasant and unlikable as he is, Fitzgerald resonates more strongly as an actual human being.
The Revenant is long on style but short on story. It’s an old-fashioned survival tale of man vs. nature (and man vs. man) that is gorgeous to look at but might leave some viewers feeling cold. Once Glass gets his revenge on Fitzgerald, the film leaves Glass’s fate ambiguous. It’s a tense and harrowing cinematic experience, one that is worth having, but it’s an experience many viewers will not be too keen on revisiting.