Last week I wrote that “The Hateful Eight” was “quite possibly the best film of 2015.” I made sure to say “quite possibly” because I considered it the best at the time, but there were still some major contenders left to see. This past week, I knocked out some of those major contenders, and while I’m not completely ready to call it a year (and even then I know I’ll never get to everything), I can say with a bit more confidence that “The Revenant” is quite possibly the best movie of 2015.
The film is the latest labor of love from director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu. His last film, “Birdman,” was “quite possibly” the best film of 2014 and definitely the Best Picture Oscar winner. This film trades the relative comfort of the modern Broadway theater for the blistering wilderness of South Dakota in the early 1800s. Like “Birdman,” the film features a number of especially long takes that make the setting and situations seem inescapable. This style doesn’t make the film more “enjoyable” per se, but the obvious difficulty and dedication do not go unnoticed.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, guide for an ill-fated fur-trapping expedition. Within minutes of the film’s opening, the trapping party is attacked by Arikara Indians and its number is cut by more than half. Among the survivors are Glass, his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and embittered trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Things go from bad to worse (to put it mildly) when Glass is mauled within an inch of his life by a grizzly bear. Fitzgerald agrees to stay with Glass and Hawk to keep Glass alive as long as possible and give him a proper burial if necessary. He botches the task horribly. He nearly kills Glass out of mere convenience, kills the previously-healthy Hawk out of panic, and brushes some dirt on Glass and calls it a proper burial. Glass pulls himself out of the poor excuse for a grave and vows revenge on the escaped Fitzgerald. Not every aspect of the revenge journey makes sense, but think of how confusing it must be for the disoriented Glass.
The key word with the DiCaprio performance, which will probably win him an Oscar, is “pained.” Hugh Glass suffers in this movie, most of all during the bear attack. The brutal sequence was already one of legend before the film even opened, and while certain rumors about the scene are untrue, it remains both grizzly and grisly. Parts of Glass get exposed that are best left inside the body. Also, as in a lot of survival movies, Glass has to perform a crude, wince-inducing operation on himself. Glass has to try and talk, drink, and breathe with a severely torn-up throat, and making all those discordant noises couldn’t have been easy or pleasant for Leo, especially over multiple takes. And then of course there is the discomfort aspect, the pain that goes along with dragging himself around the unforgiving terrain and being affected by every inch of the journey. The only thing working in his favor is that the water and snow somehow always look clean enough to drink.
“The Revenant” is an extremely violent movie, but it has a tasteful attitude about its violence. It feels like the characters are suffering a sort of natural consequence of living in this harsh environment, even when they’re performing acts of violence on each other. With “The Hateful Eight,” which approaches over-the-top violence with near-glee, I am willing to let some viewers off the hook. If it doesn’t seem like your kind of movie, it probably isn’t. Here I feel the need to push a little harder. I encourage adults, at their discretion, to breech their comfort zones and see this beautiful, harrowing, mesmerizing film.
Four Stars out of Five.
“The Revenant” is rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity. Its running time is 156 minutes.
Robert Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. He has been a published movie reviewer since 2006. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.