The Revenant, which means “one who has returned, as if from the dead”, is our semi-annual reminder that the frontier was violent, dangerous, and bleak. The film also features a performance from Leonardo DiCaprio that is so committed it seems like a dare to the Academy to pass him over for an Oscar one more time. I watched much of the film wide-eyed, with my hand over my mouth, because it is a visceral, brutal, and beautiful story about love as much as it is about survival and revenge.
In The Revenant, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleason) is on an expedition to gather fur pelts with a crew of men, including John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Bridger (Will Poulter), Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), and his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). They encounter attacks from the Arikara Indians, as they search for the kidnapped daughter of their leader. Then, while off hunting on his own, Glass comes between a grizzly bear and her cubs. This is the worst scenario for encountering a bear. The bear mauls Glass and the men are faced with the tough decision about how to care for him and continue the harsh trek back to their fort. When they come to a mountain pass that they cannot carry Glass up, Captain Henry enlists volunteers to stay behind and care for Glass until he passes, offering them a healthy bonus for doing so. Unfortunately, mercenary and unsympathetic Fitzgerald, naive Bridger, and Hawk are the three volunteers. Frustrated with how long Glass holds onto life, Fitzgerald begins what he justifies as a mercy killing and is discovered by Hawk. In the fight that ensues, Fitzgerald stabs Hawk to stop him from screaming. He then convinces Bridger that the Arikara are near and they run off, leaving Glass in a shallow grave. The rage and thirst for revenge Glass feels over his beloved son motivate him to drag himself back to life and continue his journey injured, vulnerable, and alone.
Thanks to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Alejandro Iñárritu, The Revenant is stunning. The film features abundant shots of the sweeping landscape of the wilderness and close-ups of the beauty of the woods. The only word that really describes the experience of the film is visceral. Fights happen up against the camera. Water and breath condensate on the lens. The woods are full of whispers, both psychological and otherwise. The physicality of the story is in-your-face, but in a captivatingly beautiful, if often terrible, way.
The performances are equally as intense. DiCaprio essentially becomes a bear—lumbering, covered in fur, communicating through grunts, and violently protective of his child. The transformation is gut-wrenching. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy balances portraying a complicated character with playing someone who is wholly unsympathetic. Even after seeing the scars of Fitzgerald having been scalped, he is no less odious. As an epic adventure, the film has a large cast of extras who do wonderful period work. I especially enjoyed the mixture of accents people spoke in, reflecting the diversity of origins for these early traders.
What spoke to me most in the story was the coming and going of people in Glass’s journey. As he struggles to survive, he draws on dreams and memories of his son and the mother of his child. These transcendent moments weave throughout the forest, adding depth to Glass’s relationship with himself, the other traders, and the Indians. They also mirror the coming and goings of other minor characters who help Glass through his quest. As he is never quite alone, thanks to his connection to his dead family, he is also never quite alone because of the persistent specter of danger in the wilderness. This dynamic creates plenty of tension and dread over what else could possibly happen to Glass, but also provides moments of redemption as he finds help and companionship in other lonely travelers.
The Revenant is a gorgeous and emotionally captivating film. I usually think that if a film goes longer than two hours, it had better have good cause. I sat in rapt attention, moved by every moment of its two and a half hours. I rate it 5/5 stars.
The Revenant runs 156 minutes and is rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity. It was directed by Alejandro Iñárritu, who wrote the screenplay with Mark L. Smith, based in part on the novel by Michael Punke.