The Revenant (film)

The Revenant is a film by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (as Hugh Glass), Tom Hardy (as John Fitzgerald) and Domhnall Glesson (as Captain Andrew Henry).

The screenplay is by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith and is based (in part, it says significantly in the credits) on the novel by Michael Punke.

It tells the story of a frontiersman/trapper (Glass) in the 1820s in the wilds of America who is mauled by a bear, left for dead (by Fitzgerald in the main) and his quest for revenge.

The word visceral is often used for films and books but in this case it fits very well indeed, both literally and metaphorically. It’s a story of great endurance, and physical and emotional suffering. And snow. The unyielding landscape is a protagonist in the film – perhaps even the main character. Almost every scene in the 156 minutes is outdoors in brutal and beautiful conditions – on river, mountain, forest and plain. And snow. Did I mention snow?

Iñárritu stresses the physical and the violent with close shots and slow detail. The fighting scenes are shot in short, fast-moving clips, confusing and seemingly haphazard – highlighting the sense of danger and the swiftness and randomness of death and destruction. This contrasts with travelling shots which are long, sweeping and slow, emphasising the majesty and power of the terrain. The tension is also highlighted by the score (by Ryuichi Sakamoto  and Alva Noto, with further credits to The National’s Bryce Dessner), which features long slow violins and synths for the wide landscape scenes, and percussions, deep base and cello for the build up to the confrontations – of which there are many. The score does not feature many harmonies ­– only one plotline is in need of them.

The camera is moving as often as it is stationary, giving a sense of identification with the characters and their closeness to the wildness of the setting and the harshness of the environment. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is stunning.

The acting is superb, DiCaprio’s in particular, but also Hardy – most of his scenes are interacting with other actors. Most of DiCaprio’s time on screen is alone, battling with his injuries, his grief and the brutality of winter in the wild. And groaning. There is more groaning in this film than in half a dozen porn films, or the first training session of a rugby team after a cider riddled summer – not that I’ve ever seen a porn film, or for that matter trained with a rugby team. And this sound is also close up and personal, as is the bear attack – as brutal a scene as you’ll see, and seemingly endless.

Brace yourself, Leo, this is really going to hurt. 

The film makers have made some significant changes to the story in the novel and one plot line is especially significant – and I think it works, since much of the focus of the book is the internalisation of Glass’s suffering and motivation. And Iñárritu must have felt that this needed strengthening by the plot – subtlety is not appreciated by the majority of film-goers these days and with a cost of $135 million on his back, and a length of over two and half hours, he needed to make things clear and strong. However, this change, and some others, fundamentally alters the nature of the story and brings the whole White Man/Indian conflict into the scope. Which is fine too, it’s done well, overall. He also changed the end, for cinematic effect, and it works, more or less. He also (unnecessarily) introduced a faded cliché (not in the book) for Glass to survive a storm – back to the visceral stuff there.

Despite the length of the film, the time did not drag for me. It was never going to be a rip roaring, trip along affair, given the story and the emphasis on one character. And DiCaprio is so believable in the role that it remains engaging and interest is maintained to the bloody end. All that snow couldn’t stay white forever.

A few interesting footnotes (thanks Mr. Wiki and Mrs Pedia): The rights for this were bought from Punke way back on 2001, before the book was even published. The initial proposed lead was Samuel L. Jackson, and then Christian Bale with Sean Penn in the Fitzgerald role. Overall I’m glad it went the way it did. The film was shot in three countries: Canada, USA and Argentina and there were all sorts of shenanigans in the financing and filming. The rumours of a rape scene by the bear on DiCaprio are laughable, especially given it’s a female bear protecting her cubs. I think that’s called transference.

A Revenant is a person who has returned, especially from the dead. This is explained in the book, but naturally not in the film – I’m surprised they didn’t change the title, maybe Punke insisted. Elements of the novel and film are based on what happened a real character, Hugh Glass around that time and place.

A gripe: why do film makers have to use the sound and sights of birds (Corvids or Raptors in particular) to create tension and intimate death. It’s been done to death now (ha ha). This is the second film I’ve seen in a few weeks at it (the other being The Hateful Eight, by Tarantino). Even the great Tim Burton does it in Corpse Bride, which I watched on TV at Christmas. End this cliché now!


Novelist, short story writer, essayist, sports writer. Crime novel: Whatever it Takes due out 31 July 2020. The First Sunday in September, debut novel, published in 2018. Mercier Press, Stinging Fly, Irish Examiner, Irish Times,, Holly Bough, Honest Ulsterman, Quarryman, Silver Apples.

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