The Revenant does something very different from what we see today in films. It doesn’t try to tell a story, but tries to have the audience experience it.
The Revenant is based on the real life journey of trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio) as he makes his way across the American Wilderness in the early 1800s after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by his fellow trappers. There are also several subplots in the film that all culminate in the final, but by the end, they all tie back to Glass’s journey.
If you asked what The Revenant is in one word, it would be visceral. For most of Glass’s journey he is alone, and that means much of the film is without dialogue. The film chooses to tell its story through visuals instead, and this is certainly helped by the beautiful cinematography. The shots are so wide and expansive showing a huge, empty, snowcovered land that Glass must trek. It truly is so breathtaking that it seems to almost be alien, the land seems so unfamiliar by today’s highly modernized society that the film is almost a fantasy. However, there is a point where the expansive shots become somewhat intrusive and break the narrative’s flow, but it is hard to complain as each one is more beautiful than the last. There are also many nuances that help the film become more immersive, such as when characters breathe the camera lens will become foggy or the camera will switch from the perspective of the character to the perspective of the audience (This entails parts that go from a first person perspective to a third person perspective). These are small details, but they help the film create a much more realistic world.
If you were forced to describe The Revenant with another word, it would be unpleasant. From the brutally clear sound mixing to the downright terrifying action sequences, The Revenant is not for the faint of heart. The film immerses you in its reality, but that reality is an incredibly harsh one. Some scenes go on for so long while Glass endures such physical pain that is hard to watch, let alone stomach. Even the sounds and sights can be disorienting, confusing, or just downright painful (such as one part where a man repeatedly scrapes a knife against a canteen). And even though the film-going experience is certainly not a fun one because of this, it almost puts you in Glass’s shoes by subjecting you to the intense reality that he lives in.
Now since a lot of the film is just Glass attempting to survive, that means for the whole film to work, Leonardo Dicaprio has to be believable as Glass. He succeeds with flying colors, and with very few words. His actions and facial expressions communicate much of Glass’s thoughts from disgust to anger to one scene where Glass shows a hint of joy. There are many little details in his performance that really help make it even more believable. There is one part where all Glass does is turn around to investigate a strange sound, all Dicaprio has to do in this scene is turn around. However, there is a slight detail in his face that makes it more believable: he raises his eyebrow before turning around. It seems like a very small thing, but it shows Dicaprio’s commitment to the role down to the slightest detail.
Conclusion: While certainly not without its flaws, The Revenant is a brutal, harsh, and quiet visceral experience. It will draw you in, thrash you around, and spit you out.