The Revenant is a film about one man's struggle through adversity, pushed to breaking point, to the very limits of humanity, in order to survive and enact revenge.
No not DiCaprio wrestling a bear; DiCaprio striving for an Oscar.
It's certainly a deserving performance. As Hugh Glass, he loses his family, is mauled by a bear, endures freezing temperatures in a bleak frontier, survives attacks from Native Americans, eats the marrow from a decaying skeletal corpse and raw fish, survives river rapids, sleeps inside the body of a horse after ripping its insides out, and more in what is an intense and brutal piece of cinema. Swathed in animal skin cloaks, his lank hair hanging lifelessly in front of his face, DiCaprio conveys everything he needs to through those piercing blue eyes. Even his spit seems to convey emotion. It is a startling turn.
More than this, though, the film is an exploration of what makes us human. Thrust into the wilderness, Glass becomes as fearful an animal as the bear that attacks him, but he never quite loses his humanity. Through his actions, and those of the other characters, we witness that to be human means to value honour, to help those in need no matter what their ethnicity, to have a moral conscience, to laugh. When Tom Hardy's John Fitzgerald is proven to have none of these qualities, it is deserving that he becomes the hunted.
What's most striking of all is the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, known for his work on Gravity, Birdman and Children of Men. Here, his subject is the power of nature. Where action sequences and dialogue are shot in long continuous shots (as in Birdman), nature is still, grand, and mostly shot from below to depict its imposing stature. It's the smaller moments that prove most touching: DiCaprio's breath morphing into thick mist; a herd of stampeding buffalo; a snowflake dissolving on the tongue. Using locations in Canada, Argentina and the US to depict this American wilderness, the use of natural lighting and and framing is an artistic triumph, creating a film that is majestic, awe-inspiring and beautiful. That's only aided by music from Alva Noto and Ryûichi Sakamoto: mournful, menacing and used with sparing efficiency.
The Revenant is a long and harrowing watch, but one with a compelling message, a strong central performance and even stronger cinematography. Even at its most gruesome, it remains a gripping and watchable film. It's not hard to see why it's so heavily Oscar nominated.
Watch: The Revenant is out now.