Ladies and gentlemen, be forewarned. Leonardo DiCaprio's gritty performance in The Revenant, as a lone man fighting for survival one relentless winter in the American wilderness is grueling, tough and exhausting. This is not heartthrob Leo in his famed handsome, charming and cocky mode—à la Jay Gatsby, Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort or Jack Dawson of Titanic fame. This is a primal, macho and scruffy DiCaprio out for revenge. And he is utterly impressive.
Loosely based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a trapper in the early 1800’s, the film is both beautiful and brutal, visceral and violent, spiritual and yet grounded in its portrayal of the harsh cruelties wrought by both man and nature.
After a vicious attack by a tribe of warriors on his trappers camp, Glass and few other surviving men set off for the nearest outpost, hundreds of miles away. En route, Glass gets mauled by a bear in one of the scariest, most incredible and realistic animal attack scenes on film. You can practically smell the bear’s breath as it forces its massive weight down on Glass, clawing his back, then toying with him—like a cat with a ball of yarn—even terrifyingly licking his face. (This masterful bit of filmmaking makes the boat scene in Jaws where Robert Shaw gets eaten alive look like child’s play.) I have to admit, I watched it through the spaces between my fingers as I covered my eyes in horror.
Glass miraculously, but barely, survives and has to be carried on a stretcher hence slowing down his party, much to the dismay of disgruntled fellow trapper John Fitzgerald. Played with evil glee by Tom Hardy, Fitzgerald agrees to stay behind and take care of Glass until he can travel more easily, but has ulterior motives. Among other unforgivable acts that I won’t give away here, he half buries Glass in a shallow grave and leaves him for dead.
The rest of the film is spent with DiCaprio struggling to survive and get back on his feet (literally) in order to make it back to civilization so he can exact revenge on Hardy. For much of this journey, DiCaprio looks—and sounds—well, like a cave man, as he fishes with his bare hands, build fires with sticks, braves the elements and outsmarts both human and animal foes alike. Bearded, dirty, bloodied and donning a fur blanket to keep warm, he doesn’t utter a word. But you scarcely notice—his eyes, groans and expressions, his strained crawling and hobbling all serve to tell the story and we are right there with him every agonizing step of the way.
It helps that the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is stunning. (No slouch, Lubeski took home Oscars for Birdman and Gravity.) From panoramic shots of snowy mountains and herds of stampeding buffalo, to claustrophobic close-ups where the camera is literally in the actor’s face, you feel as if you are in the movie. Every drop of blood, sweat and tears becomes palpable. (I actually shivered as the snow fell on screen.)
This immersive experience is magical, but also a bit hard to take. But if you can endure the graphic violence and don’t mind the feeling that you are struggling right along with DiCaprio, there is some pay off in the end and this is not only a visually stunning movie but a performance not to miss. In fact, after five nominations, this could finally be DiCaprio’s year to take home the golden Oscar statuette that has for so long eluded him.
The Revenant is out on limited release December 25, 2015 and wide release January 8, 2016.