Having finally seen it (and avoided a lot of the hype beforehand), I now can’t decide if The Revenant is a grim revenge western or a surreal eco-horror – the likelihood is that it’s both. It is undoubtedly superb, one of those experiences that couldn’t be replicated in another medium (like Gravity, I’m not convinced that it will even work on the small screen), held together by a trio of superb performances and a case of director insanity working – this is a modern Fitzcarraldo. It’s also a surprisingly beautiful film given the ugly subject matter, it brings to mind a bizarre mash-up of Terrance Malick’s “The New World” and “High Plains Drifter”, eco-horror tinged with the supernatural.
The validity of the story isn’t important, in truth this is less a case of survival and revenge as a commentary on savagery. Only two characters emerge with anything near a conventional moral outlook (this is a film full of villainy) in the conventional sense, although only one of those is truly sympathetic. Many characters aren’t even named, existing purely as cipher’s to progress the plot. In a conventional sense the film shouldn’t really work, there is little character development and the plot is little more than a collection of increasingly grotesque incidents – however, the bravado with which it is all presented raises it above the norm.
The film is simply gorgeous from start to finish, much has been made of the lack of CGI enhancement (excluding the bear) but once again physical effects show how much can still be done. It’s also the first film I’ve seen shot on digital that has the look and feel of old film technology (despite being the first film to use what is arguably the most advanced digital camera currently available). Traipsing out into the middle of nowhere, the film looks and feels authentic, even the sound being muted to the point where dialogue become incomprehensible (although the film could be watched without any dialogue and perfectly understood).
Yes, DiCaprio is as good as everyone says, but Hardy is a match for him and the unsung hero of the film is Will Poulter as the closest thing to a moral centre in the film and making it so there is at least one character who we ultimately care for and appears to have honest emotions. DiCaprio’s is an immensely physical performance, but it doesn’t feel as complex as “The Aviator” or “The Departed”. It’s still damn impressive, but sometimes it feels like a trick rather than a performance.
Is it worth seeing? Yes, as long as you can stomach the violence (this is firmly in the upper reaches of the 15 category) which at times is truly stomach churning. It does need a big screen to bring out the best of it; the scale of the environment is one of the defining aspects of the film. Whether it will be remembered as a truly great film in years to come is debatable (on reflection it truly is slight), but it is no doubt an impressive one.