Director: Alejandro Iñárritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson
Oscar buzz — a win, or even a nomination — is generally believed to help a film’s box office business. The awards’ publicity ensures that more people go see it than would have otherwise. How this influences our perception of the film itself is not entirely clear. Would it be better to evaluate a film on its own merit, or do so with the consciousness that it has been decreed to be among the year’s “best” — picture, performance, whatever?
Sometimes, the knowledge that a film is in the running for/has won a top prize may offer a gentle nudge for us to like it as well. But with other films, one may nurture terribly high expectations, only to feel disappointed when what unravels on screen fails to match up to what one had in mind.
As The Revenant comes to our theatres this week, it is perhaps unfortunate that what one connects instantaneously with the film is its lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s quest for an elusive Oscar (he has been nominated five times but hasn’t won the golden statuette so far). Will this be the year he wins? It’s unfortunate because his performance is not the most fascinating thing about this film.
The Revenant is based on the 2002 book by Michael Punke, Revanant: A Novel of Revenge. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say how much it differs from the real story of 19th century trapper Hugh Glass. Suffice it to say that the film does have a couple of major difference from Glass’s exploits, as they unravelled in real life.
Set in the frozen vastness of South Dakota, by the Missouri, the film begins as Glass and the team of fur trappers he is working with are set upon by a tribe of Native Americans. They make a hasty exit in their boats, leaving behind many of their pelts — and many of their men, dead. The river, however, is no safer, so after Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhal Gleeson) confers with Glass (DiCaprio), they decide to abandon the boat and continue their journey to the nearest settlement Fort Kiowa, by foot. Among the notable members of the party are Glass’ half-native son Hawk, and the antagonistic Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). The men are hauling heavy loads up treacherous terrain in the bitter cold. The threat of the Indians at their heels is ever-present. And then things get worse.
Glass, out on an early morning reconnaissance, is attacked and nearly mauled to death by a grizzly bear. Badly injured, unable to move, Glass is found by the other members of the party, who give him such medical aid as they can and decide to carry him along on a rough stretcher. But the trail and their circumstances won’t allow the men to bear this additional burden, so two of them, including Fitzgerald, volunteer to stay back with Glass and Hawk until the former dies. For a few dollars, they promise that they will ensure that Glass has a proper burial when he dies, as he inevitably will.
But the days go on, and Glass refuses to die. Staying in the same position will likely land Fitzgerald in danger from the Indians as well, so getting Hawk out of the way first, he places the virtually immobile Glass in a shallow grave and lying to his other comrade about spotting some Indians on their tail, sets off to rejoin the others.
The Revenant is then about how Glass drags himself through the snow, on a mission to extract vengeance on Fitzgerald, and whether or not he manages to do so.
If director Alejandro Iñárritu’s previous film Birdman (which won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars last year) was set within the narrow, almost claustrophobic constraints of a theatre, where a play is in progress, then with The Revenant, he has chosen the exact opposite canvas. The land Iñárritu films is vast and untouched, a sea of white blinding snow in every direction, except where there are dense forests. Just as the jazz drums in Birdman built up to a crescendo as the scenes built towards their climax; in The Revenant, it is Native American drums that create a sense of foreboding — spare and minimal initially — and then rising loudly as the characters set up their varied showdowns. Even more than the actors, it is the unforgiving land and the music that are the true stars of Iñárritu’s Revenant. This is not to say that the performances are not worthy of mention. Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald is superb, and will hopefully get the Best Supporting Oscar he has been nominated for. As for the man who all eyes are on — Leonardo DiCaprio — well, he does spend a major portion of the film dragging himself along the snow and communicating via grunts. That is not to say that his portrayal isn’t as gritty as the occasion demands.
Beyond the saga of revenge and one man’s death-defying journey, The Revenant tells another story — of how a people’s land was invaded by white men for their greed, how this very unequal battle destroyed a way of life, a region’s flora and fauna, entire tribes, but maybe not their belief systems. There is a scene in which Fitzgerald and his companion make their way through an Indian village that has been burned to the ground (this is after they have abandoned Glass). As they pick their way through the corpses, Fitzgerald finds on the ground a pocket watch, which might have belonged to a white man at some point of time. Cursing the Indians, Fitzgerald says, “They’re always stealing from us”. The irony of a white man, saying that about the Native Americans, is telling.
More than one man’s revenge, it is this narrative — about the battle for settling on America’s frontiers, and the many victims it claimed — that is the truly gripping offering in The Revenant....