The Revenant features one of the most horrifically visceral scenes of 2015. While hunting, a scout played by Leonardo DiCaprio runs afoul of a grizzly bear. As the bear tears into Leo the camera is right in the mix, the animal’s breath fogging the lens, blood and spittle spraying the screen and DiCaprio’s face. Questions of what is digital or “real” expire in a flash as man and beast flail in a life-and-death contest. It’s a showstopping sequence, and that’s just in the first act.
Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu captured The Revenant in the wilds of Canada, Argentina, and the United States, using a blend of raw footage and clever computer-generated effects to create a story of survival and adventure that would curdle Jack London’s blood.
The bear sets up a slight plot to drive the film. DiCaprio’s scout, Hugh Glass, laid low by the attack, is left in the care of two members of their trapping company. Betrayed by one of those men, Glass pursues the villain across a magnificent landscape gripped in the fist of a crushing winter, at first literally pulling himself along the ground in a subhuman crawl.
Superficially this is a revenge story. Glass has his eye on a man named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the trapper who is ultimately responsible for leaving the critically wounded Glass alone in the wilderness. With few women of any significance in the film, there’s the vibe of a David Mamet story, as rugged men struggle with one other and the world. There’s also something else going on in The Revenant — ironically, a gentler aspiration.
Glass is driven not only by his own personal betrayal, but by the loss of his family. His son is present at the film’s opening and factors into his betrayal, while dreams and flashbacks introduce his Native American wife. Those dreams are striking images (Glass facing a small pyramid made of what appear to be buffalo skulls) with a hazy aesthetic quality. A somewhat cryptic voiceover whispers poetic text about finding stability. These dreams are a window into Glass’s yearning for love and family. It’s easy to think he might set vengeance aside if only he could be reunited with his wife and son.
Yet that emotional underpinning is a bit too minor to do more than shade in the margins of the frigid and brutal action. DiCaprio’s journey, mirroring stories of the real Hugh Glass — also mauled by a bear, according to many accounts, after which he journeyed hundreds of miles alone — is preoccupied with the basic demands of survival in the harsh landscape. The film is like an illustrated catalog of wild dangers. Too bad the title A Million Ways to Die in the West was already taken. Emotional concerns naturally take a back seat to basic demands of survival in the face of rival trappers and roving native forces.
(The script, by Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu, based on the novel by Michael Punke, thankfully doesn’t treat indigenous peoples such as the Arikara as boilerplate enemies. Instead, it identifies with native experience more than that of the trappers, especially as Glass’s wife is of the Arikara.)
DiCaprio commits to his clenched-jaw performance so completely it looks as if his teeth might shatter. Glass struggles through the snow as his quarry Fitzgerald strides, with bluster and shaky confidence, back to the military fort that shelters the trappers.
As Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy tamps down some of his most grandiose tendencies, playing the role with cagey eyes and faux reasonability. He’s a frightening adversary, with common and selfish desires — an amoral opportunist in a corner of the Earth where there are few observing eyes.
The Revenant thrives with great splashes of virtuoso technical filmmaking from Birdman director Iñárritu and his regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editor Stephen Mirrione. The effect, however, is at times undermined by technique that serves itself more than the story or Glass’s experience. The camera probes and floats in long takes, constantly moving. It might, in one apparently-seamless shot, move from a grounded position to travel with a rider on horseback, then float high up in the air for a lofty perspective.
Sequences such as the bear attack, some battle elements, and movements through the trappers’ military fort are brought to life by the persistent camera movement. At other times, the technique obscures more than it shows and the camera movement veers into the ostentatious. DiCaprio’s impressively intense, committed performance can evoke deep sympathetic pain, but the camera also serves to disconnect the action from any sweaty, straining effect. The Revenant can be a surprisingly passive experience.
Much of the drama is set up, then discarded within the film’s first half. There is potential intrigue in the schism between Glass and other members of the trapping company, and certainly in the potential to resolve his desire for vengeance. Many of those characters and situations are soon stripped away, however, leaving only intermittent encounters that, despite the film’s brutality, rarely feel potent enough to swerve the story in any unexpected direction. The Revenant is all grim forward motion, with only spare dollops of any black humor to sweeten the bitter actions.
As it stretches into a drawn-out conclusion, the film’s 2 running time (156 minutes) feels like it is designed to work alongside the filmed action, communicating some slight shred of Glass’s trial. Iñárritu, DiCaprio, and Lubezki cap the action with a confrontational final shot that helps hammer home ideas of loss and isolation, but at that point it’s almost too late.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Images: 20th Century Fox