The Revenant (2015)
There’s been a of talk around this western, ever since I read the brief outline for The Revenant (2015) I immediately made the connection with the Richard Harris film which depicts the same events in Man in the Wilderness (1971) which for a while was all but ignored until the reviews started to come out. It’s hard to ignore really, as year drew to a close I understood that both The Revenant and the earlier film are based on the same real events but two different fictional accounts of that event. Sounded a little confusing at the time, yet they both put their own spin on facts of a frontier time in America, becoming part of the legend that is America’s history and folk-lore. More recently it has been released as award-bait which it clearly has in heaps as each ceremony is leaning towards. It could also be the year to end all the Leonardo DiCaprio memes as he should get the Best Actor Oscar, which is well deserved and a long time coming really, more on that later. Also up for best picture which I can see this easily getting, even though director Alejandro González Iñárritu picked up that one last year for Birdman (2014), could he be the new John Ford, or is that too premature in terms of Oscar success. Could this be the year that a Western wins big again, something that has not been achieved this Unforgiven (1992). There has been a slow return of the genre, not in the classic form, or even a lighter tone of the 1990’s, they are more reverential and reflective, more adult than even some of the 1950’s classic which are still hard to beat. I saying this even before the end of February. I feel though that as I have built up an interest and a practice around a dying genre it has been reborn once more, I feel lucky to have that , if only it was back in the golden-age.
Anyway enough of all the chatter and down to what I think make this film, why it stands a very good chance at the Oscars. Whilst also comparing it to Man in the Wilderness which I must say now is hard to call which is better in the light of the intense experience that I felt coming out of the cinema, the imagery so raw and fresh. I couldn’t help making comparisons with Terrence Mallick when looking at how nature’s captured, the whispers of dialogue in flash-back, yet Iñárritu isn’t trying to imitate the director, it feels more like coincidence, adding another dimension to the film and to Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) back story that the centre of this revenge western.
I also found myself drawing comparisons with Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The New Word (2005) combined with Man in the Wilderness to give us this hybrid that can stand on its own two feet. Maybe its the time period that they all cover, pre-Civil War America that we have come to know and define the language of the genre. The country has yet to be won completely, we are supposed to be in is still untamed, filled with trees and at the moment snow which is another natural enemy against the group of fur trappers that want to return home with all they have caught. Immediately caught in a vicious fight with Natives who ambush them, its a bloody scene that finds even the audience wanting to hide from the arrows. From the first few seconds you are immersed into this dirty, cold and dangerous world. Helped in part by the sound design on the film, heightening your senses to think that you are not just watching these events but out there in the cold. We get a lot of opportunities to look up out to the sky from the trees, as if to say look at what we have lost since the country was won. But you can say the same for most modern countries, as they are reshaped in the image we want them to be, for our purpose. Still it doesn’t drive that idea home we are left to come to that conclusion ourselves in this still untamed wilderness of the mountain man and the settlers of the 1820’s
Without giving too much away in regards to the plot that hasn’t already slipped through the net, I found myself waiting for the bear attack, not that I was impatient that was a building of tension among the men, especially between Glass and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who resents him for advising their captain Andre Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) who is more open and understanding a strong leader among this band of rough men and boys who have gone out fur trapping in the wilderness, having to hide a good number of their finds before moving on, a much depleted force, only 10 left after a bloody ambush. There is a great focus on Glass and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) the child of mixed race who gets some abuse, only kept alive by his fathers forward thinking. Needing him to stay quiet to survive, better to be seen and not heard. Even though as we find later in the film, some nations are still living peacefully with the American’s. The push Westward has not yet begun as we know it in the genre.
Of course when that scene between the bear and Glass is happening, it’s in your face and it’s not pretty. Something rather brutal, being taken along with Glass as he is torn to pieces almost. A tiring scene, which is not something I say lightly, it lasts what seems like forever, as he is played with like a rag doll in the cover of the forest before the men come out to find him. I couldn’t help but start to draw comparisons between this and Man in the Wilderness which is an abridged version of the same events. Here its a far wider and emotional journey for all involved, the men are all rounded characters. As much as Tom Hardy is chewing his dialogue, he’s held to account by Bridger (Will Poulter) who is the conscience he really doesn’t need at his side. Hardy is a worthy foe for Glass who spends the rest of the film avenging his son, Something we don’t get in the earlier film. There’s more emotional intensity now, more reason to return alive, not just to find the men who left him for dead.
They are both strong in equal measure in terms of depiction of the Native American, who even have a few lines in their own language, we even meet the French who are abusing their power in the untamed country. I still remember the silent labour in Wilderness that will stay with me, I found it quite powerful how dignified they were portrayed. It may have been Hollywood’s way making up for all those other messy inaccurate depictions, indulging in the other if only briefly. In The Revenant they are interacted with, they are not the enemy to be feared, coming from Glass’s history he has no fear, even speaking Pawnee. They are both different films telling the same story, or version of the facts and there is nothing wrong with that.