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The Revenant feels bleak and punishing, but worth the journey

With the pervasive, nearly non-stop campaign by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio to let anyone interested know how difficult it was to film The Revenant, a backlash against the film seemed in danger of occurring. Especially if you were cynical about director and actor talking about what an ordeal they suffered through to make a great film, how they sacrificed for their art, just in time for Academy Awards consideration.

Yet that is the game during Oscars season, and Iñárritu and DiCaprio shouldn’t be knocked for doing what needs to be done to get that affirmation and recognition. (I was really trying to avoid writing “Don’t hate the player; hate the game,” but I guess I just did it.) And Leo really, really wants that golden statue. He ate that raw bison liver. He got thrown around by that grizzly bear (or whatever treated him like a chew toy before digital effects created the beast). He elbow-crawled his way through the Canadian wilderness. And he froze his ass off during the entire process.

OK, maybe there’s a sizable bit of publicity and hype to those stories. If director and lead actor weren’t promoting their movie, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs and maximizing the investment of the studio. And if we know that DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson and the rest of the cast didn’t film The Revenant in a studio surrounded by green screen that will be filled in with CGI later, but were battling the elements and natural sense of self-preservation, that makes the entire venture more impressive. Doesn’t it?

At this point, maybe The Revenant is review-proof. The movie has now won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture, beating out critical front-runner Spotlight and popular favorite Mad Max: Fury Road. Additionally, DiCaprio and that bear came close to ending the First Order-like stranglehold of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the top box office spot, finishing just $3 million behind in this past weekend’s grosses. So both Hollywood Foreign Press Association voters and the general moviegoing public bought in, believing that Iñárritu has created a great film and DiCaprio gives the performance of his career.

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All right, so all of this discusses the business of The Revenant, why we’re aware of it, why the film won three Golden Globes and why it could have a similar showing at the Academy Awards, both in terms of nominations (announced this Thursday, Jan. 14) and actual winners when the ceremony takes place on Feb. 28. Does the movie itself, as a piece of cinema and entertainment, deserve all of this advance billing and acclaim? Is DiCaprio really that good or does he just give a showy performance meant to attract Oscars consideration? Get to it already, man. 

Yes, The Revenant is that good. It’s outstanding, actually. The story is unrelenting. But to properly convey the lives that fur trappers endured on the Montana frontier during the 1820s — the harsh climates, predatory animals, vicious Native American tribes and rival trappers — and the epic suffering DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass survives, fueled largely by revenge and perhaps a rightful death, the movie has to be something of a trek for the viewer as well. We have to feel Glass’ pain and struggle in some regard, even if in our imagination, from the climate-controlled comfort of a movie theater.

Iñárritu provides plenty for our senses to grab hold of, however. You can practically feel the cold, smell the surrounding landscape and everything living in it. When Glass has that near-fatal encounter with the grizzly, every bite of animal teeth and slice of claws against human flesh, each crack of bone and slam against the frozen tundra clench the stomach. And that’s essentially only the beginning of this poor guy’s journey. As you know if you’ve seen the trailers and ads — or listened to DiCaprio and Iñárritu tell the story — Glass is left for dead after the attack by his mates, who either can’t make the trek while carrying his near-lifeless body or feel he should be put out of his misery because he’ll never survive the journey back to civilization.

Though plenty has happened to that point — settler vs. native, man vs. bear, greed vs. compassion — it’s essentially where the story begins. The Revenant is based at least in part on a true story (and on a novel by Michael Funke), but given the level of trauma suffered by Glass, you have to wonder how much of this is folk tale. But apparently, there is a healthy level of truth to the narrative. Glass survived that bear attack, and all the torn flesh, broken bones and fever that resulted from it, willing himself across the Great Plains to wreak vengeance upon those who left him behind and took everything meaningful from him (notably Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald).

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Iñárritu and DiCaprio depict the story in grisly detail. We see the gaping wounds in Glass’ back, the capture of fish and slaughter of bison for food, and the extreme measures taken to stay warm in such harsh climates. (It doesn’t typically go well for four-legged animals that cross Glass’ path during his 200-mile journey.) And from all accounts, the director tried to make his actor’s ordeal as authentic as humanly possible. (And when those limits were reached, digital effects bridge the gap. Not that you can tell, however. The work here is seamless, as it would have to be. You can’t see visible pixels in a movie trying to depict an epic struggle of man vs. nature.)

What may be surprising — or not, if you’re familiar with Iñárritu’s work — is how beautiful this movie is. Yes, it’s ugly — very ugly, gruesome and violent — in places. But there are scenes of the natural habitat Glass encounters along the way that almost make that suffering worth it. We see cascading rivers and waterfalls, daylight streaming through treetops in the forest, avalanches falling in the distant mountains and herds of bison rumbling. Those interludes of nature’s wonder — hopefully, as real as Iñárritu wants us to believe — allow our minds (and hearts) a brief moment of rest and peace among the grueling quest and brutal, life-threatening encounters that Glass must fight through.

However, this is ultimately a revenge tale and Iñárritu hits the satisfying beats of a man wronged seeking justice and a hunter tracking down his prey for retribution. The third act of The Revenant is a thriller, almost another movie after the first one about Glass triumphing over his broken body and the punishing elements to reach his objective. Fitzgerald is an irredeemable scumbag, one who only cares about money and his own well-being, and would push his fellow man off a cliff to achieve even the smallest prosperity. In a different story, it might be preferable to see the villain have more depth, to understand his perspective a bit. But there’s no room for that here. Glass’ hunger for revenge has devoured any sense of compassion, though there are some shades of complexity as he nears his objective.

I won’t go so far as to say The Revenant is the best movie of the year. (I will have that belated list later this week.) And personally, I’ve said that about enough films in 2015 (and very early 2016) to probably risk being too generous with my praise. But it’s certainly among the best from the past year and deserves its awards consideration. Iñárritu can seem insufferable talking about the art of his filmmaking, but the man knows what to do with story and visuals. And DiCaprio probably should have earned recognition for his acting long ago, though he’s highly regarded as one of the best performers of his generation. He’s not just due; he deserves his moment for this one. Yes, it’s that good.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, also covering baseball at The Outside Corner and pop culture for The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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