Another tour de force from Alejandro González Iñárritu, “The Revenant” couldn’t be further from last year’s quizzical “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), even if Michael Keaton himself were to sashay onto the screen in his underpants. Returning DP Emmanuel Lubezki once again displays his mastery of the protracted sequence, but this time around he sets out to draw his audience into the grimy frontier life of fur trappers in the Western territories of the early 1800’s. Reportedly rendered using only natural light, and exposing the actors to the harsh environment to make things as authentic as possible, Iñárritu’s gorgeous but unsparing epic of survival and revenge is easily the most impressive piece of filmmaking this year. It is, perhaps, Iñárritu’s “Apocalypse Now”, in his uncompromising resolve to realistically recreate such an unfathomable situation.
Based in part on the biographical story by Michael Punke, the film follows a handful of traders attempting to salvage a load of valuable pelts after an attack from an unwelcoming Arikara tribe leaves them about twenty men short. Lubezki observes the carnage with the steady hand of someone out for a casual day of bird watching, immediately evoking his work with Terrence Malick. The battle choreography is extraordinary, as arrows pierce the air and more than a few body parts—a bloody, dizzying frenzy captured in just a few very slow-moving frames.
Vulnerable and on the run, the crew and its captain (Domhnall Gleeson, in his best role on the heels of “Stars Wars” and “Ex Machina”) look to seasoned guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get them back to the safe haven of the nearest camp, deciding to hide the furs and return later with reinforcements. This is to the chagrin of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a primitive character whose skull bears evidence of an attempted scalping. Fitzgerald isn’t too keen on Glass, in part because he takes issue with his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a gutsy teenager who Glass must keep within arm’s reach.
Just as we’ve recovered from the opening slaughter, Glass is mauled by a Grizzly Bear—and believe me, all five minutes of it look so absolutely, stunningly, excruciatingly real that it’s impossible to do such a visual feat any justice with words —leaving him torn to shreds and virtually lifeless. The captain, though honorable, unwittingly makes a fatal decision when he leaves Fitzgerald with Hawk and greenhorn Bridger (Will Poulter) to care for Glass while the rest chart a path back to their outpost.
Fitzgerald is so calloused by frontier life that, when he murders Hawk and leaves Glass to breathe his last breath in solitude, it seems more like an instinctual act of self-preservation than of sadism. Hardy, a sharp-tongued Brit who’s mastered several indiscernible American drawls, plays to quiet desperation more than outright villainy—a lumbering brut who is indifferent to anything but his own survival. However, this makes no difference to DiCaprio’s Glass, who claws his way out of his shallow grave to set out on his revenge-fueled jaunt across the dangerous tundra.
Much of the movie is DiCaprio’s character surviving the elements—a 200-mile limp that makes Matt Damon’s recent visit to Mars look like a stroll along the Outer Banks in the springtime—during which he finds shelter inside a horse carcass, uses gun powder to cauterize a gaping neck wound, takes an unexpected trip down some rapids, and makes several feverish visits to a vaguely spiritual world, where his late Pawnee wife—who, like many, died at the hands of white soldiers while defending their land—only briefly assuages his agony. The brutality of Iñárritu’s film is inherent in the frozen, blue-hued landscapes (primarily those of British Columbia), a beautifully chill-inducing expanse that might as easily encapsulate the icy depths of the human condition. While the two primary players spend most of their screen time apart, “Inception” co-stars DiCaprio and Hardy seem consciously in close quarters, as Fitzgerald, while ostensibly unsuspecting of Glass’s survival, seems in some way to sense that retribution is imminent. With an outstanding cast who committed to unheard of filming conditions, “The Revenant” is a Western/revenge thriller of an entirely different caliber.
— M. Parsons