The legend of American frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass, who was left for dead after being mauled by a bear in the early 1820s, inspired Richard C Sarafian’s 1971 film Man in the Wilderness, in which Richard Harris starred as “Zachary Bass”.
Now it returns to the screen in a film based in part on Michael Punke’s 2002 book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a barnstorming performance as the embattled Glass, whose quest for survival takes him on a Herzogian odyssey to the very borders of life and death. Having previously been Oscar-nominated for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond and most recently The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s clearly DiCaprio’s turn to triumph with a performance which relies more upon physicality than the spoken word. Academy voters like to see their actors suffer, and there’s a tangible mondo tinge to scenes of Leo plunging into icy waters, being buried alive, chomping down on raw bison liver, and crawling into a still-warm animal carcass to sleep. Meanwhile, the freezing temperatures of the breathtaking environment (all filmed in natural light) seem to seep into his very bones; by comparison The Hateful Eight looks like a summer holiday.
Having swept to Oscar victory with the faux one-shot gimmickry of Birdman, director Alejandro González Iñárritu once again hitches his wagon to the technical brilliance of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, working wonders with his digital Arri Alexa cameras. Via Lubezki’s sweeping widescreen lenses we find ourselves viscerally dragged through the wilderness, violent ambushes and life-threatening confrontations caught in superbly orchestrated lengthy takes, the camera following on foot, on horseback, through woods and plains, air and water, often without apparent edits. This is muscular film-making, and much has been made of the punishing physicality of the “living hell” shoot in Canada and Argentina, with a digital grizzly bear one of the few obvious concessions to artificiality.
There is hokey spirituality too, as Glass’s traumatised mind drifts back to the Native American mother of his Pawnee-speaking son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), offering life lessons from beyond the grave. The stalwart supporting cast is headed up by a partially scalped Tom Hardy who chews the rugged scenery with spittle-flecked gusto as the wretched John Fitzgerald, while Domhnall Gleeson is spot on as the strait-laced Captain Andrew Henry. Hats off, however, to Will Poulter who all but steals the show from his more heavyweight co-stars as the naive and increasingly embattled Jim Bridger. A chameleonic presence, Poulter is shaping up as one of the UK’s most versatile screen actors, a man for all seasons whose achievements deserve to be trumpeted a little louder.
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