Few films have more hauntingly portrayed Mother Nature’s simultaneous beauty and brutality than The Revenant, an austere man-versus-nature saga set in the untamed wintry wilderness of early-nineteenth-century America. With grit, finesse, and a fine eye for photographic detail, director Alejandro Iñárritu brings to life a survival story (based on the novel of the same name by Michael Punke) whose blood-drenched imagery indelibly imprints itself in the imagination, its visceral realism rarely failing to get beneath our skin despite a few far-fetched plot elements and, at a little under three hours, a somewhat-too-leisurely running time. Be that as it may, Iñárritu’s powers of persuasion are quite remarkable. If you wouldn’t have believed one man alone, possessing little more than a hide over his back, could survive a flesh-shredding bear mauling, rampant skin infections, numerous arrow peltings, and bone-chilling blizzards, this film just might convince you.
The one man in question is Hugh Glass (Leonardo diCaprio), an explorer and guide who—before fate unleashes her fury on him—is leading a group of trappers back to an outpost so that they can regroup after a devastating Indian attack. Other members of the crew include mission commander Captain Andew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson); the swaggering, antagonistic John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy); the boyishly effete Jim Bridger (Will Poulter); and Glass’s half–Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The father-son relationship between Glass and Hawk is the film’s spiritual center. Hawk serves as the tangible remembrance of his deceased wife, who appears to him in softly lit dream sequences, often at the nadir of his struggles against the elements. When Fitzgerald snuffs out the boy’s life before his very eyes, the gurney-ridden Glass vows that no physical ailments are going to stop him from seeking revenge.
Though it’s superficially a grim tale of personal vendetta, The Revenant never devolves into the senseless nihilism of The Grey, another trapped-in-the-wild film that also focuses on a man’s physical and spiritual isolation as well as the recurring visions of a wife as a source of fortitude. Nor does Iñárritu’s film waste time, as The Grey does, with “Why me, God?” rantings directed toward the heavens. For, as an Indian that befriends Glass on his travels reminds him, “Revenge is in the hands of the creator.” Well put, chief. Iñárritu’s brilliantly understated camerawork gives us more information than any amount of philosophizing could anyway, pointing up to the stars hanging suspended above the tallest conifers in the night sky as Glass sees the shade of his wife smiling longingly from the ether of heaven, beckoning her husband to join her in bliss. Ah, the ability to show without telling: it truly is a gift from the gods.
Sometimes, though, the film seems too exploitative of the sort of blood-and-guts imagery that seems to make the typical moviegoer of today salivate with glee. In the bear mauling scene, do we need to see the rivers of blood and rended sinews in such lurid detail? And perhaps more to the point, does this flaying need to go on for almost ten minutes? How about Glass’s fileting of a horse so that he can bed down in its hide when a blizzard crops up? Do we need to see closeup images of the internal organs? Granted, Iñárritu’s intent is sobering realism, but I was reminded of Jesus’s prolonged beating at the hands of the Romans in The Passion of the Christ, another generally excellent film that nevertheless loses a few points in my estimation on account of its protracted and distracting focus on Christ’s suffering at the expense of the uplifting hope of his message. Likewise, The Revenant occasionally assaults the eyes with too much splatter and innards, inhibiting the communication of its spiritually rejuvenating core themes, which Iñárritu explores with a powerful simplicity: the inextricability of familial ties, purpose as a catalyst for human perseverence, Glass’s hellish war with nature as allegory for the individual’s quest for spiritual rapture. Of one thing, I’m thoroughly convinced at least: Iñárritu is to be commended for primarily using images to narrate his story, never getting bogged down in an overly prolix script. And whether he’s filming the glistening stillness of a snowy valley, the onslaught of a group of hollering Indians, or a horse’s entrails, his capturing of visual detail is extraordinary.
Unsurprisingly, DiCaprio’s performance in the lead role is not quite so extraordinary, though he has so few lines of dialogue that he manages to avoid totally embarrassing himself. Actually, he’s really not too bad at grunting, screaming, and writhing in agony. The supporting actors are, also unsurprisingly, somewhat stronger than their pretty-boy leader, especially Tom Hardy as the ruthless pragmatist Fitzgerald. Forrest Goodluck (a nice, sanguine-sounding Native American name!) also fares well as Hawk, playing the role with the dignity and devotion it requires. And even DiCaprio, I must say, seems to muster more feeling than the Hollywood puppeteers would usually permit; his whisperings of tender phrases in a native tongue into his dead son’s ear might even be characterized as “touching.”
Ultimately, The Revenant admonishes us not to forget that serenity and brotherhood are but one small face of the human condition. It’s interesting that unlike “resentnick” modern historians, who mendaciously portray the American Indians as meek pacifists who were fodder for the big, bad, raping-and-pillaging Westerners, Iñárritu takes the broader, more balanced, and—of course—more historically accurate perspective. Just as Fitzgerald forever hates the race that took his scalp as a trophy and Glass’s soul burns to avenge the death of his son, so the Arikara tribesman thirst for the blood of the French trappers who stole their princess, Powaqa. Warring against this bestial appetite is the desire to help the oppressed and needy, as demonstrated in Glass’s rescuing Pawaqa from being raped and in the Indian chieftain who gives him walrus meat and helps him survive his crippling wounds. In an age of smug, pseudo-scientific scoffers, the film refreshingly reminds us of our unity under God: only with love as our ally can we hope to conquer death.
Indeed, as the title suggests—it may be a somewhat cryptic word for those whose French is a little rusty—The Revenant is a “coming back” or a “return” from death. In terms of the film, some might even call it a resurrection. On occasion, The Revenant may drip a bit too much blood and ooze a bit too much meaning, but it’s an overall solidly structured adventure flick that prompts contemplation as much as it raises goosebumps. Let’s hope that smart films like this can prompt a different type of rebirth by helping to dispel the pall of mediocrity that currently threatens to shroud the movie industry in permanent darkness.
Joe’s Grade: B+