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Movie review: ‘The Revenant’

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' (photo: 20th Century Fox)

By Tim Lammers

“The Revenant” (R) 3 stars (out of four)

Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the gutsiest performances of his career in “The Revenant,” a compelling survival-turned-revenge tale based on the harrowing, true-life travails of legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass nearly 200 years ago.

On a fur-trading expedition in the 1820s led by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), Glass in a fateful moment finds himself alone in the wilderness, when he’s confronted by a vicious grizzly bear. And while he is brutally attacked (in one of the most ghastly scenes on the big screen in recent memory), it’s only the beginning of Glass’ troubles. Shredded and left in shock by the attack, Glass isn’t expected to survive as infection sets in.

His near lifeless body too burdensome for his hunting party to carry through the unforgiving wooded landscape, Glass is left in the care of his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the young and impressionable Jim Bridger (Will Pouter), and John Fitzgerald (a frightening Tom Hardy). A crazed mercenary who is determined to leave the severely wounded hunter for dead, Fitzgerald resorts to extreme measures to destroy Glass and the last remaining member of his family, and attempts to bury the hunter alive. Glass, however, somehow miraculously survives, and once he regains his strength, sets out on a path of revenge. Running parallel to Glass’ story is the trek of a Native American tribe searching for a lost member, and eventually their paths intertwine.

Fresh off a trio of Oscar wins for “Birdman,” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s constructs a riveting tale with “The Revenant,” using his trademark long tracking shots (unlike “Birdman,” there’s more than one here) to give the film a fresh, point-of-view feel. However, with the Oscar success of “Birdman” comes clout, and Inarritu clearly used his trio of statuettes as leverage in getting the film’s extensive final cut. Clocking in at 2 hours and 36 minutes, “The Revenant” is too long for its own good, even though it moves along much quicker than the plodding 2 hours and 49 minutes of “The Hateful Eight.”

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While the film is engaging, the whole idea of Glass surviving such of a horrific attack is suspect, even though his tale is true. There are several moments in the film that seem far-fetched, almost making you wonder just how much the filmmakers embellished the tale for the sake of entertainment. That’s not to take away from the film’s stellar performances by DiCaprio (who speaks less than a dozen lines in English and a few more in a Native American dialect) and the barely-recognizable Hardy, who each go to great lengths to give their characters some stark realism. DiCaprio, a vegetarian, even went so far in one survival scene to eat the raw liver out of a buffalo carcass. Now that’s commitment.

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Interview: Domhnall Gleeson talks ‘The Revenant’

Domhnall Gleeson in 'The Revenant' (photo -- 20th Century Fox)

By Tim Lammers

For lack of better words, Domhnall Gleeson has taken command of the big screen in the past year. It’s rare that an actor gets to star in one acclaimed film, much less four of them, and in a one-year frame, to boot.

Beginning with sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina” in April and followed by the coming-of-age drama “Brooklyn” in November, Gleeson took charge in December as the villainous General Hux in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” before serving alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in the limited release of “The Revenant” on Christmas Day.

Opening in theaters nationwide Friday, “The Revenant,” directed by “Birdman” Oscar winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, tells the harrowing true-life tale of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a hunter on a fur-trading expedition in the 1820s who is left for dead by his hunting party after being brutalized by a bear. Hardy plays John Fitzgerald, a fellow hunter who betrays Glass and leads others to believe that he’s dead, and Gleeson plays the pivotal role of Capt. Andrew Henry, the Rocky Mountain Trading Company founder and expedition leader who becomes caught up in Fitzgerald’s deceptive tales.

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Gleeson, 33, said that Inarritu’s shoot in the elements easily provided him with his most challenging role to date; even more difficult than what he experienced working on director Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” in 2014.

“I had to lose a lot of weight for ‘Unbroken’ and that was really hard. You just think to yourself, ‘Well, it won’t be this hard again.’ Then you cut to a year later and you’re saying, ‘What the hell?’ I wasn’t expecting it,” Gleeson said, laughing. “The shoot was intense, but I was always expecting it to be intense.

“The notion was, if we really challenged ourselves, if we were able to put any of that into the camera — a certain amount of pain, a certain of amount of really battling the elements — that maybe we’d be giving the audience something they hadn’t seen before. I think we really got there,” Gleeson said. “The film is special, and I know when I was watching it recently, I could feel it. It will never feel what it was really like being out there in the elements again, but watching it really evoked those feelings. I felt like I was back out there.”

Gleeson, a Dublin native and the son of acclaimed actor Brendan Gleeson, admitted that there were times when he asked himself, ‘What the hell am I doing here,’ but never during the workday.

“It was normally in the evening when the day was over and your body was sore,” Gleeson said. “During the day you just want to get the work done to the best it could be. The one thing we didn’t forget was that fact that this film could be brilliant. There are very limited opportunities in a lifetime to be in a film like this, so you don’t forget that aim.”

Staged in such remote locales as Montana, British Columbia and Calgary, “The Revenant” was marked by an unusually long shoot of nine months, because Inarritu and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, took great pains to film the scenes in natural light. On top of that, the elements weren’t exactly cooperative.

Gleeson said he admired Inarritu’s commitment to “The Revenant” and what he required of his actors, no matter how difficult things would become.

“Alejandro said very early on that compromise wasn’t an option when it came to this film — that we were all in, or not in at all,” Gleeson said. “That’s the sort of attitude that all the greats have. It’s one or the other. If they’re all in, they’ll do whatever it takes. That can be very tough, but if you’re going to make something extraordinary — and not many people make anything extraordinary — if you’re going to do it, then that’s the place to start from.”

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Apart from the intensity of shooting in such harsh elements, Gleeson, like his co-stars, had the weight of history on their shoulders playing real-life people — fur trappers in a time where life wasn’t exactly so warm and fuzzy.

“We have time to think about now that they didn’t have,” Gleeson said. “If you were out doing what those men were doing at that time, minute to minute, the first thing on your mind was survival. That was foremost. That’s the way it still is for a lot of people today, but for me, I have time to think about work, people and whatever else I want to do, like watch a Netflix show. If I want coffee now, I can pay a couple bucks for a coffee.”

As for his character specifically, since “The Revenant” isn’t specifically about Capt. Andrew Henry, per se, his personal story was utilized in a different sort of manner, Gleeson said.

“Playing a real-life character weighs a lot on your mind, but the important thing is to be the right thing for the film — 1823 is a long time ago, and Captain Henry was known as being a very good and capable leader of men, and a good man himself,” Gleeson said. “He was hugely respected by the men he led, and in our story, we don’t quite start with him in that scenario. Things are a little out of his control, probably more so than they ever were in real life.

“However, I do feel we get him to the place where he existed by the end of the film,” Gleeson added. “I think my character’s arc is to grow into the man you would read about if you looked up the history of the times he lived in.”