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The Revenant PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
03 02 2016

ImageDirected by Alexandro Gonzālez Iņārritu

In a terrifying opening sequence the sickening thunk of a wooden arrow passing through human flesh and sinew and bone, kicking off a kaleidoscope of blood, fear and pain, sets your nerves jangling. And that's without the queasy expectation of the bear attack that we know is to come. Not for those with a weak stomach, this extremely graphic and dour film is brilliantly filmed and acted, but an ordeal that, after the first hour, starts to take that little bit too long to make its point, so that as with some relief you leave, you might begin to ask yourself ‘So what?'

The handful of trappers who escape from the attack include their leader Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the young lad Jim (Will Poulter) , and scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo di Caprio), with his young son Hawk (Forest Goodluck), born of a Native American mother. During their escape Glass is separated from the rest, and, very graphically, mauled by a bear protecting her cubs. You're in there with him, as the claws carve their way through his back and throat, and the heavy paw leans all the animal's weight on his face. Horribly wounded, he somehow survives to be found by the others, who struggle to carry him along with them back to their settlement, but are defeated by the terrain and weather. He seem mortally injured, so a small party led by Fitzgerald are detailed to stay and protect him and ensure he gets a Christian burial.

Tom Hardy makes Fitzgerald a cold-hearted cynic throughout, so it is no surprise when he attempts to kill Glass, murdering his son in the process and leaving Glass for dead. What follows is Glass's survival through mere force of will to pursue Fitzgerald and take his revenge. Further perils ensue as he drags his damaged body through the unfriendly landscape, with more encounters with Native Americans, French trappers, icy rapids, gangrene, starvation, a do-it-yourself larynx plug, a horseback plunge over a cliff and a night spent inside the self-same eviscerated horse, Luke Skywalker in Tan-Tan style, to escape freezing to death. The big events are thrillingly filmed, but while one would not want this to be a mere succession of show-stopping numbers, the groaning and dragging through the snow that goes on in between becomes, after a time, well, a drag, and the ever-renewing strength Glass finds following successive physical setbacks becomes increasingly unlikely. So much so I half expected Glass to morph into the Black Knight and call out ‘It's just a flesh wound!'

What is more powerful than the interest in ‘man seeking revenge' are the momentary glimpses we get of the limpid beauty of the ‘New World'. Cinematographer on the film was Emanuel Lubezki, also responsible for Terence Malick's The New World, a fine portrayal of the earliest settlers in America. This, set in early C19th, shows what became of those high hopes. The still lovely, though harsh, nature is besmirched by Europeans, God-fearing though most of them still are. They kill the animals, despoil the land with their camps and settlements, treat the inhabitants with contempt, disturb the silences. With their notions of revenge they cause destruction and death.

It's a desperately unpleasant, masculine world of dirt, discomfort and pain, where even the comparative ‘civilisation' of the settlement is grimy, temporary and disordered. Iņārritu's vison of the Agonised Man fighting his fate is common to many of his films, exemplified in in both Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro's roles in 24 Grams, figures so wrapped up in their own angst that they engage us less as real people than as situations. In the end I felt little for Glass, much more for the collateral damage, human and animal, he'd dragged into his tragedy. Revenge only reveals its meaninglessness when it's too late.

See at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle January 27 2016

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