Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: The Revenant
If there’s one movie that’s had its box office results significantly after the nominations, It’s The Revenant. If you’ve seen it already, you’ll easily see why it could have done excellently even without the Oscar buzz.
It’s 1823 in an unsettled wilderness part of the northern area of the Louisiana Purchase. A group of trappers under the command of Captain Andrew Henry search for pelts until a surprise attack from Arikara Native Americans kills many from the camp and cause the survivors to flee on a boat. Part of the camp is Hugh Glass who is on friendly terms with the Natives–even being a widow to a Native American woman and fathering their ‘half-breed’ son Hawk who’s part of the camp– and knows the area well. At Glass’ recommendation, they abandon ship and walk on foot to return to their outpost Fort Kiowa. This does not settle well with some of the trappers including John Fitzgerald who has a hostile attitude towards Natives after being scalped years ago. He is noticeably hostile to Hawk.
Glass scouts ahead alone for a while but he is mauled by a mother bear protecting her cubs. The attack is brutal and Glass is severely mauled but he’s able to stab the bear. The other people in the camp find Glass but doubt his chances for survival. Henry commands to three men in the camp–Hawk, Fitzgerald and the young Jim Bridger–to stay with Glass until he dies and give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald tries to smother Glass when alone but Hawk stops him. Unfortunately stabbed is killed by Fitzgerald as Glass can only lie and watch. Fitzgerald attempts to bury Glass prematurely but stops when he sees Bridger flee and follows.
Abandoned with only a canteen, Glass is somehow able to survive and slowly heal. Days later, he’s able to heal to the point he can move, then crawl, then walk. As he heals he’s haunted by visions of his deceased wife. He even sees visions of her as he comes across an abandoned church. However he also has to deal with the Arikara whose chief is searching for his kidnapped daughter Powaqa and trusts no white man.
Both Fitzgerald and Bridger are heading to Fort Kiowa but Fitzgerald scares Bridger into being fully under his control. One at the Fort, Fitzgerald tells Henry that Glass died and Hawk was attacked by the Arikara. Henry gives both Fitzgerald and Bridger a cash reward. Fitzgerald accepts without guilt but Bridger refuses.
Glass encounters Hicuk, a friendly Pawnee who gives him food and shelter and helps him along the path back to Fort Kiowa. Hikuc has also lost his family. Upon hearing from Glass his intent for revenge, he tells Glass “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands.” The day after the blizzard, Glass wakes to find Hikuc hanged by French pelters. Not only that, he finds Powaqa being raped by leader of the French pelters. He’s able to kill the two leaders and free Powaqa but has to escape with Hikuc’s horse and Bridger’s canteen. An ambush by the Arikara causes Glass to flee on horse only to fall off a cliff. Glass survives but the horse is dead. Glass uses the horse’s carcass as a shelter overnight.
Meanwhile word has gotten around to Fort Kiowa that Glass is in fact alive. This is known as a French hunter brings Bridger’s canteen there. Henry however thinks it’s stolen from Hawk and organizes a search party but Fitzgerald knows the truth and flees. Henry finds Glass alive in the search. Infuriated, he charges Bridger with treason after returning to the Fort but Glass insists it’s all Fitzgerald’s doing.
The operation then goes to find Fitzgerald and bring him to justice. Henry however is caught by Fitzgerald in an ambush and is killed and scalped. It’s now up to Glass who hatches a plan to finally get his revenge. It works in catching Fitzgerald and having him shot but not without Fitzgerald being able to run off. It then comes down to a fight between the two for Glass to get his revenge. It ends with Glass making a decision and an ending we’re all left to decide for ourselves Glass’ fate.
Now just to get things straight, this is not the true story of Hugh Glass getting revenge on John Fitzgerald. In fact historic documentation shows Glass let Fitzgerald live because he knew the heavy penalty of killing a soldier in the U.S. Army. Fitzgerald became a soldier in the U.S. army and was stationed in Fort Atkinson, Nebraska. Fitzgerald did give Glass his rifle back.
This film is actually a revenge story adapted from the 2002 novel The Revenant: A Story Of Revenge by Michael Punke. I think the focus of the film is more about telling the story than it is about retelling history. I have not read Punke’s novel but I’m sure that was how Punke would have wanted Fitzgerald to face the music upon abandoning Glass to die. There is actually very little information about who John Fitzgerald was or even what type of person he was in real life. We have the historical documentation of what happened to Glass and what happened in his pursuit of Fitzgerald but not much else. The novel was not only Punke’s chance of creating his own revenge fantasy in Fitzgerald but giving Fitzgerald a character of his own. The film helps Punke’s story come alive and even paint a picture of Glass, Fitzgerald, the times, the terrain and the domain of all that happened.
This revenge story is not your typical revenge story you’d see in your typical Hollywood movies or even from the likes of Quentin Tarantino. This revenge story is also a story of survival and also shows a human side of the perpetrator Hugh Glass. Yes, he was as tough as a frontiersman and a trapper of the time should be. However he did have a soft side. He still has feelings towards his deceased wife who was a Native American woman and he truly loved his son despite others seeing him as a ‘half-breed.’ He also had to be tough as he needed to survive the brutal bear attack and recover from his wounds in order to pursue Fitzgerald. He also had to develop the will to live knowing that his son was killed by Fitzgerald. He also had to be right in his mind in deciding what he had to do to Fitzgerald in the end.
I will admit there were times when I questioned if this film was becoming too much of a tall tale. One example is when seeing Glass pursue Fitzgerald in what appeared to be just days before his attack. I often asked: “Would someone who suffered such a brutal bear attack recover in that fast of a time?” Even that scene where Glass and his horse fall off a cliff. The snowy tree broke Glass’ fall and helped him live without any severe bodily damage but the horse died. That scene also had me scratching my head. Maybe those scenes and the elapsed time were also part of Punke’s novel. Nevertheless it still had me questioning its believability.
First off I’d like to give respect to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for delivering an excellent movie. He may be renowned for his ‘filmwork’ but here he takes his first steps in directing a movie intended to draw big crowds while still maintaining some top film making qualities. Very little was compromised and the end result was excellent as it both succeeds as a film and as a movie. I’ll admit I was unhappy about Birdman winning Best Picture last year because it didn’t give much for a film audience to either enjoy or appreciate. Yes, it had top-notch acting, directing and scriptwriting but who truly enjoyed it? This is ten times more enjoyable while still maintaining top acting and directing. Yes, there were some scenes that can scare many. In fact I’ll admit the film made me hope I never walk in the woods again. Nevertheless it was a very good movie full of drama and thrills. As I said, I have never read Punke’s novel but the script Inarritu co-wrote with Mark L. Smith definitely makes the novel come alive. I know the script was not nominated for an Oscar. However the unspoken scenes in the movie told as much as the scripted scenes.
The film would simply be a popcorn movie if it weren’t for the acting. Leonardo DiCaprio did an excellent job of Hugh Glass. He said a lot especially in the scenes where Hugh Glass was unable to speak. His performance was as much about telling a lot through physical actions as it was through dialogue. Hey, it’s been said 80% of communication is non-verbal and Leo was able to say a lot in those scenes. That’s why I’d be shocked if he doesn’t win the Oscar. Also just as excellent is Tom Hardy. He didn’t play your typical rotten-to-the-core villain. He gave John Fitzgerald some fears and insecurities to the role and conveyed them well. Nevertheless he also made Fitzgerald hateable as a remorseless villain who even calls the dead Hawk a ‘pussy’ in Glass’ face. Additional performances of respect include Bill Poulter as Jim Bridger, the young trapper who possesses the conscience Fitzgerald lacks, and Forrest Goodluck as Hawk.
Additional qualities of acclaim is the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, the costuming by Jacqueline West including its use of furs and hides, the film editing by Stephen Mirrione, the visual effects including that of the bear attack, the excellent use of both natural settings and constructed sets that fit the times and scenes perfectly and the film’s score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Carsten Nicolai and Bryce Dessner.
An additional note. I also give the film respect for its treatment of Native Americans. I may have been a baby when Sacheen Littlefeather refuted Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf and spoke of his protest to the on-screen depiction of Native Americans or First Nations peoples as Canadians commonly refer to them as. However I already know of Hollywood’s past and how they’re famous for shelling out ‘cowboys and indians’ movies from decades past. I can completely understand why Brando would have been angry with that depiction as Brando has had a history of activism in the 1970’s on behalf of people of various races. I will admit Hollywood has been better at its depiction of indigenous Americans from films like 1990’s Dances With Wolves and even the character of Chief in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that was shown in theatres a mere three years after Brando’s Oscar protest. I’m sure there are some people that can spot imperfections in Hollywood’s current treatment of Native Americans including in this film but I found it hard to pinpoint a scene that was insulting to them. Sure there were battles with tribes and there were bigoted attitudes among many white characters but there were many positive Native American characters in this movie. In addition the main protagonist Hugh Glass had positive interaction with the Native people including marrying one and treating his son with love while many despised him as a ‘half-breed.’
The Revenant isn’t just a dazzling movie. It’s one that will keep you intrigued from start to finish and not know what to expect next.