An epic about survival against all odds is timeless and borderless. How fascinating that both The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, each nominated for numerous awards at this year’s Oscars, make wide appeal in their different ways to similar primal instincts.
In 1823 American frontiersman Hugh Glass was left for dead by his fur trapping company after a grizzly mauled him to within a whisker of his life. Alone in winter in the mountains somewhere between South Dakota and Missouri, without supplies or weapons, his throat torn and his back ripped to the bone, he was still able to get himself to the nearest American settlement. The wilderness disgorged him after he had crawled, trudged and floated downriver, a 300 or so kilometre trek to safety.
It’s no surprise that this story has been told and re-told in print and on film since but really the optimum moment for the re-telling is now with the technology onside. A digital camera to shoot in freezing wilderness conditions and CGI to make scenes with the bear terrifyingly real. So real you may want to turn away.
You will know by now the intriguing background to this film. That it is based on a recent book by a US trade official, Michael Punke, an ambassador to the WTO, who has made the survival epic turn on revenge. While loosely based on known facts—a 19th century trapper survives a savage encounter with a grizzly and treks alone through snow-bound wilderness to safety—beyond that, the quest for revenge appears to be fiction.
The will to live was probably reason enough for Glass himself to keep going and perhaps, as has been suggested, he just wanted his equipment back. However this revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio hidden under beard, grime and animal pelts, is motivated by more than survival. He wants payback against the perfidious Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy very effective here), one of the two men into whose care he was entrusted as he lay close to death. In his impatience to leave the wounded man behind, Fitzgerald despatched his half-Indian son and nearly killed Glass too. It is perhaps at this point that Glass goes over to the native American side, and fully identifies with his dead son and the Pawnee wife killed by soldiers.
The Revenant is a survival tale that is raw, visceral, immersive in the extreme and gorgeous to behold. In the hands of director Alejandro Inarritu, the author of striking films like Amores Perros, Babel, and 21 Grams, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) – with whom he made Birdman – it has become a staggering cinema experience, by turns beautiful and brutal.
On Glass’ journey back to base camp, the tests of endurance just keep coming. His need to eat, drink and heal while keeping clear of predatory animals and hostile Arikara Indians makes his decision to live an act of courage. There are few places of refuge besides the friendly Pawnee man who builds him a sweat tent to help him rid himself of the toxins still coursing through his blood. The interlude is brief and tribulations resume when hostile Arikara chase him over a cliff. A tree breaks his fall —really?—but his horse is killed, though the animal’s hollowed out carcass subsequently gives him shelter and warmth.
By this point, the unremitting onslaught of hardship is taking its toll. The Revenant’s two plus hours of experiential cinema will be gruelling for some. If there was more insight into Glass’ character and the impact of his experience —DiCaprio might have helped here—it would have improved the narrative out of sight.
The Revenant can be tough going, but the scenes of wilderness are sublime and the sense of adventure palpable. If you aren’t cowering in your seat ringside as a man takes punch after punch in his private hell, you will be in awe of the majesty of nature that offsets man’s puny struggle to survive.