Whether brutally beautiful or beautifully brutal is the more accurate description, Alejandro G. Inarittu’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Birdman” is both visually ravishing and extraordinarily violent. Though its deliberation is very different from its predecessor’s frantic pace, like that previous film it’s more impressive for its technical virtuosity than any dramatic profundity.
“The Revenant” is based on a 2002 novel by Michael Punke that was in turn inspired by the true-life experience of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who was left for dead by his fellow trappers after being injured by a grizzly during an 1823 expedition in the Northwest. Glass survived and made his way back to civilization—and those who had abandoned him in the wilderness. In this version, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), accompanied by his (fictional) son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), is a man still grieving the loss of his Pawnee wife and acting as scout for the group of beaver trappers headed by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
After the troupe is attacked by a party of Arikara warriors searching for the kidnapped daughter of their chief, the survivors must try to make their way back to their home fort by a difficult route. In the course of scouting one, Glass is attacked by the grizzly and seriously injured. Henry decides that the group should proceed, leaving Glass and Hawk behind in the care of two volunteers—belligerent John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who bears the scar of having been scalped, and callow young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter)—who pledge to give Glass a proper burial when he dies. But as their situation becomes ever more precarious, the impatient Fitzgerald kills Hawk and deposits the barely breathing Glass in a shallow grave, dragging the conscience-stricken Bridger back to the fort with him to collect payment for their supposedly courageous service.
But Glass digs himself out of the earth and struggles to reach the fort, bent on revenge against Fitzgerald. He’s aided by an Indian who shares bison meat with him and builds him a shelter during a blizzard, but when Glass awakens he finds his protector dead, hanged by a bunch of French thugs who are also holding the Arikara chief’s daughter prisoner. He rescues her and barely escapes himself, eventually reaching the fort where Fitzgerald, warned of his approach, absconds into the mountains with the company’s store of cash. Henry goes after him, but it’s Glass who eventually confronts Fitzgerald just as the Arikara warriors, now accompanied by the chief’s freed daughter, happen upon them.
It’s certainly not the narrative that sets “The Revenant” apart (nor the dialogue, which is frankly no more than perfunctory when the script bothers with any at all). Though packed with mostly gruesome episodes that extend it to epic length, the film is essentially a descendant of the innumerable westerns (including Leone’s) about wronged men determined to track down and wreak vengeance on those who brutalized them and their families. Even the story of Glass has been filmed before—in Richard Sarafian’s “Man in the Wilderness” (1971) with Richard Harris.
What’s distinctive about the film is instead its look. It was shot masterfully by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki on authentically frigid locations, and in crisp widescreen the effect is genuinely breathtaking. So are the action sequences that break the grim, funereal mood that dominates. As choreographed by Inarritu and Lubezki and edited by Stephen Mirrione, the Arikara attack at the beginning is stunning in its visceral brutality, and the encounter between Glass and the bear is even more so, a prolonged, agonizing sequence so realistic that leaves you wondering how it could have been done. Similar moments of excitement and gore (as when Glass escapes pursuers, surviving only by gutting his horse and sleeping inside the carcass) punctuate the film, and elsewhere there’s an underlying sense of mystery and dread pervading the tale.
The impact is due, of course, not merely to the craftsmen behind the camera but the actors in front of it. DiCaprio throws himself into his role, embracing the man’s grizzled, desperate persona completely—going so far, it certainly appears, as to sink his teeth into raw meat or a fish literally scooped right out of a stream. (The gauzy montages Glass periodically experiences to his happy married life, unhappily, are unsuccessful in deepening his character.) Hardy is even more unrecognizable as the nefarious Fitzgerald, growling out his lines with venomous spite. Poulter has Bridger’s callowness down pat, and Gleeson makes Henry an honorable, if not exemplary, leader. Goodluck tries hard, but is never able to create a convincing familial bond with DiCaprio.
In the end, there’s much that’s impressive in “The Revenant,” but it’s a film that’s far easier to admire than to love. Indeed, one takes leave of it commiserating more with the actors and crew who obviously endured much making it than with the characters whose story they’re telling.