The Revenant (15, 156 mins), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s epic story of frozen wastes in the 1820s, is a proudly relentless film, which takes death and discomfort as its starting place, and steadily ratchets up the pain. Fortunately, at least nine-tenths of its protagonist, the frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), appears to be composed of grit.
Glass is leading a group of men on a trapping expedition when they come under Cree Indian attack. The scene unfurls like a prolonged, bloody ballet, with Glass howling elementally in its midst, searching for his beloved half-Pawnee son who travels with him. The surviving party limps away, with Glass at its helm, until he is almost destroyed by a female grizzly bear protecting her cubs. The bear assault is both intimate and shocking, as Glass is sniffed, shaken, drooled upon and almost shredded. Barely alive, he is betrayed by a fellow hunter (Tom Hardy) and left to struggle alone, fuelled only by a thirst for vengeance.
This a harrowing film – indeed, as soon as one burst of harrowing is done, events conspire to harrow us again. In a brutal landscape, the chief point of existence for beasts and man alike is to rear the next generation, a hope that is often thwarted. DiCaprio, swathed in freshly scraped furs, is like some creature from a swirling myth, grunting compellingly through a series of ordeals: by arrow; by earth; by water; by blizzard. In one scene, as he emerges from a makeshift shelter in a hollowed-out horse, you can almost smell him before you hear him.
The Revenant is a formidable and extraordinary spectacle, awash in viscera and ice, yet – despite the austere beauty of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography – there are still moments when its pile-up of cruelties feels overwrought.
The Big Short (15, 130 mins, ) – Adam McKay’s darkly comic film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book – is about the handful of money men who anticipated the collapse of the US economy in 2007-8 before anyone else, and then made millions by betting against its good health. The first to smell something rotten in the vast US sub-prime mortgage market is Michael Burry (Christian Bale) – an oddball, workaholic hedge-fund manager with a penchant for heavy metal – who “shorts” the shares in an agreement with the banks. Others, who hear of his move – characters played by Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell, all on sharp form – realise that he is on to something big.
The film tells a gripping story, while explaining the crisis in wittily accessible ways, including Margot Robbie opining on “sub-prime” from a bubble bath. How we should feel towards these canny visionaries of disaster remains something to ponder, but the analysis of the moral and economic hollow rings true.