Film Review: The Revenant

By Leah Michaelsen

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s thrilling western drama, The Revenant, is inspired by the real-life experience of American frontiersman Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) when his fur trapping team leaves him dead following a brutal bear attack. The film depicts a savage story of endurance, revenge, and justice set against a stunning backdrop of frigid landscapes and inhospitable terrain.

Set in 1820’s American territory (present day Montana and South Dakota), the film features visually breathtaking scenes shot mostly in a remote area of the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary, Alberta, and filmed entirely with natural light. The expansive, untamed wilderness combined with veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s vision for crisp, radiant imagery throughout the film makes for a stirring and beautiful portrait of the natural world, captured on screen.

At the same time, the gripping portrayal of one man’s battle for survival amidst a barren landscape reminds the viewer of the power and volatility of the natural world. While filming, the cast and crew battled frequent sub-zero temperatures, frozen terrain, and unpredictable weather patterns. Off screen, the glaring reality of our changing climate was made clear when, near the end of filming, the crew was required to travel to the southern-most tip of South America to find snow covered landscapes to finish shooting. Twice during the 10-months of filming, production was shut down due to seven or more feet of snow melting in a 24-hour period…highly inconvenient for a film that takes place entirely in a snow covered expanse.

After accepting his much anticipated award for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the 2016 Academy Awards, DiCaprio took a moment to emphasize the imposing threat of climate change to our planet. “Climate change is real,” he said. “It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating."

Few modern films of this size and scale dare to capture our natural world with such striking aesthetics, and without the use of predominant digital enhancements. Not only does the film deliver cinematically, but The Revenant tells a compelling story of human determination and willpower while weaving together themes of survival, revenge, and the brutality of both humans and nature alike.

leahLeah Michaelsen is a staff member at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.