(c) Regency Enterprises / 20th Century Fox
The other night I finally got around to watching The Revenant, which won Oscars at the recent 88th Academy Awards for its leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, its director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and its cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. But I must confess that I didn’t watch it because of the fact that it won a slew of Oscars, or for that matter a slew of Golden Globes and BAFTAs too. Nor did I watch it for its spectacular filming locations in Canada and Argentina, nor for its majestic musical score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, nor for the large amounts of technical talent and effort that, generally, went into its making.
No, I watched The Revenant because I wanted to see a grizzly bear tear a new asshole in the star of Titanic (1998).
Mind you, when the much-anticipated scene arrived and serious bear-abuse was inflicted on the man who’d helped the soppiest film in history break box-office records around the world, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d expected. Probably this was because I felt upset about the bear. Because it transpired that the bear – who ends up in an even worse condition that DiCaprio does, i.e. dead – carried out the attack for a noble reason. DiCaprio had stumbled across its cubs and the bear was trying to protect its offspring.
The bear’s protective instincts tie in nicely with one of The Revenant’s main themes, which is parenthood. DiCaprio’s character, 1820s frontiersman and trapper Hugh Glass, has a son (Forrest Goodluck) who’s treated with contempt by the white men around them because his mother was a Native American; and the father is constantly defending the son against their belligerence. Meanwhile, the chief of the Arikara tribe (Duane Howard), whose braves decimate the party of trappers DiCaprio is guiding through the wilderness in a gruelling battle at the film’s start, is on the warpath because some white men have abducted his daughter (Nelaw Nakehk’o); and he’s desperately trying to find her.
After the mauling he gets from the bear, DiCaprio is betrayed by a couple of the trappers he’s been escorting. Abandoning him out in the woods, crippled but still alive, is actually the least of the crimes they commit against him. But the hard-as-nails DiCaprio refuses to die. He scrabbles out of the grave they’ve dumped him in and he crawls, then staggers and finally limps across countless miles of hostile countryside, determined to catch up with his betrayers and get revenge.
The main person he wants revenge on is a thuggish troublemaker played by Tom Hardy, who speaks with a mumbling drawl that rates about 6 out of 10 on the Tom Hardy Mumbling Scale. (10 on that scale is represented by Hardy’s performance in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.) Hardy’s character has already survived a partial scalping by some native tribesmen that’s left his head, and hair, looking like that of Annabelle Lwin in Bow Wow Wow when they had a hit with Go Wild in the Country.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu directs the action sequences with aplomb but he’s equally interested in the imagery of the beautiful but dangerous landscapes that DiCaprio has to traverse — icy peaks, snowy plains, primordial forests, vertiginous cliffs, frothing rivers and howling storms — landscapes that are populated by elk, bison and packs of ravening wolves. Nature with its endless cycles of birth, life and death, Iñárritu seems to say, is utterly indifferent to the affairs of mankind, however grand those affairs may be. DiCaprio might get his revenge or might not, but at the end of the day the snow will still fall, the wind will still blow and the wolves will still prey. This makes The Revenant reminiscent of the films of director Terence Malick, such as The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), which display a similar preoccupation with the perpetual motions of nature. In fact, The Revenant is like a Terence Malick movie with a very big injection of testosterone.
Actually, I think Malick has the upper hand on Iñárritu when it comes to conveying the chaos of the battles between settlers and natives in newly colonised North America. A battle depicted in The New World, which is set two centuries before the time of The Revenant, is disorganised, confusing and episodic. It stops and starts again and is almost like a mass-brawl of drunkards in a late-night pub. Iñárritu’s battle sequence at the start of The Revenant is terrifyingly haphazard – death can claim anyone, from any angle, at any moment – but the fighters are a bit too efficient. Every musket-ball and whizzing arrow seems to find a target, i.e. in some screaming victim’s flesh. Considering the primitiveness of the weapons involved, I imagine the reality would have been more shambolic. (And later there’s an unlikely scene where DiCaprio, being chased by Arikara warriors and riding his horse pell-mell towards a cliff, manages to swing around and blast his nearest pursuer off his saddle with a dodgy old musket.)
The bear-attack scene is more convincing. DiCaprio gets savaged but manages to play dead, and eventually the bear loses interest in him. Then, as he crawls towards his fallen gun, the big grizzly beast comes roaring back to give him a second mauling. DiCaprio’s helplessness and the bear’s treatment of him, which is like a sadistic and attention-deficient kid playing with a ragdoll, make the scene ring true.
I’ve never read the book on which The Revenant was partly based, the 2002 novel by Michael Punke. But I imagine Iñárritu was inspired too by Jack London’s short stories about prospectors and trappers in the Yukon and by Cormac McCarthy’s ‘revisionist’ western novel of 1985, the mayhem-filled Blood Meridian. Though The Revenant, despite all the cruelty it depicts, is pretty upbeat compared to Blood Meridian. Apart from Tom Hardy’s character, the half-dozen main characters in The Revenant have at least a glimmer of goodness in them. In Blood Meridian, everyone is as rotten as Hardy.
Finally, a word about DiCaprio winning an Oscar for this. He’s done good work with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (2006’s The Departed), Quentin Tarantino (2012’s Django Unchained) and Christopher Nolan (2010’s Inception, which also starred Hardy), so I’d assumed an Oscar was coming his way sooner or later. However, it seems a bit odd to give him an Oscar for The Revenant because his role here doesn’t involve much (verbal) acting. As Hugh Glass, DiCaprio spends his time reacting with grunts, grimaces and howls of pain to being clawed, mangled, stabbed, starved, frozen and buried alive; to having to cauterise his wounds with gunpowder, eat raw fish and dodge lots of arrows; to plunging off cliffs, getting swept away by rapids and being entombed in heavy falls of snow. His dialogue is hardly Shakespearean. Mainly it consists of exclamations like GAAAAAAH! and UUUUURGH! and AAAAARGH!
Then again… Has there ever been an Oscar award that wasn’t bitterly contested by film fans? I suppose not.