The plot of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is easy enough to understand. It’s everything that comes after it that’s hard.
A team of fur trappers are working in an unspecified area of the Louisiana Purchase when they are attacked by a party of Arikara Indians. The few survivors look to their guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his experience to get them back to their fort. Glass is an outsider with the group, never quite fitting in due to the presence of his Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). When Glass is viciously injured in a bear attack the group at first tries to carry him out, but soon realize that his condition is quickly deteriorating and his presence is hampering their progress. Unwilling to simply kill Glass, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) offers $100 to any trappers willing to stay with Glass until his death. Hawk and another youth offer their services and their share of the reward to any third man willing to help. Reluctantly, the prospect of $300 convinces the roguish John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to stay behind as well.
Fitzgerald is soon tired of waiting for Glass to die, and decides to leave him to the elements. He kills Hawk and tricks the other trapper into leaving with him, leaving Glass near death and alone. Glass, however, does not die, and begins a journey to crawl, limp, and walk back to the fort in search of his revenge against Fitzgerald.
DiCaprio’s performance is a testament to what an actor is willing to endure for a part. His commitment is unquestionable. DiCaprio endures a fraction of Glass’s own pain as he crawls on his hands across the frozen Canadian wilderness and plunges into half-frozen rivers. After watching him eat a raw bison liver, it’s not hard to wonder about those rumors that DiCaprio actually spent the night sleeping inside an animal carcass.
He’s aided by a group of castmates doing capable work, but largely willing to stay out of his way. Gleeson is quietly great as the young but morally firm hunting party leader. Hardy chews the scenery a bit with a heavy accent, but is effective enough.
DiCaprio is captivating, but it’s also a very strange performance. Is physical endurance and commitment really acting? Much of DiCaprio’s role is silent because he spends so much of the film alone, and a large fraction of the dialogue he does have is in a Native American dialect. It does ultimately work for me though, in large part because Glass is such a ghostly figure, seemingly existing between the real world and the haunting memories of his past and losses.
Yes, The Revenant is as brutal as you’ve heard. There’s simply no getting around that fact. This is a story of physical and emotional endurance, and the film is only too happy to let you, the viewer, share in that experience. It’s also stunningly beautiful. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Birdman often walks a fine line of beauty and cruelty.
This isn’t the first time Iñárritu has asked his audiences to endure this way. I refer to Babel as the coldest film I’ve ever seen, and was stunned to find Birdman’s comedy a breath of fresh air. That time is over, however, and Iñárritu is back to his old, technically brilliant if emotionally distant style of filmmaking. Thankfully, he brought frequent collaborator Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki along for the ride.
Lubezki is a god among men. There will be plenty for audiences to debate about this film, but no one will deny that it’s visually stunning. The famed cinematographer has outdone himself again, and he’s the obvious frontrunner for a third consecutive Oscar. The Revenant takes elements from Lubezki’s previous works and combines them into a stunning visual package. The most immediate among them are the light-infused shots of nature harkening back to his efforts on The Tree of Life. Here, Lubezki & Iñárritu made the downright ludicrous decision to shoot using only natural light, and, since only the twilight was suitable for filming, that meant it could only take place for a couple hours a day. It’s the mark of mad genius.
The results, however, are astonishing. In a film where nature is not merely a setting but a prime adversary, Lubezki’s work highlights the both the beauty and danger of Glass’s surroundings. There are endless gorgeous shots of snowy mountains, trees, and icy rivers. The same wolves that could easily kill Glass also provide a meal when they’re run off from a recent bison kill. Every night fire is both a source of warmth, illuminating Glass’s face with flickering light, and a beacon to any Arikara on his trail.
Lubezki’s work isn’t merely pretty pictures, though. The Revenant also features the complex tracking shots that Lubezki utilized in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men in tandem with the long cuts of Birdman. The opening Arikara assault on the trapper camp is every bit the technical achievement to rival the film’s beauty. Lubezki’s camera sweeps through the melee, moving between combatants, through temporary shelters, up into trees, under the icy river, and following flaming arrows across the sky. He encapsulates a frantic fog of war while still maintaining a situational geography that isn’t a complete mess. You always know where the safety of the boats and the battle lines are even as the scene devolves into chaos. Lubezki is my MVP of the decade thus far, and The Revenant is yet another feather in his cap.
I want to be clear. This film is not going to work for everyone. Some will find it too brutal, and others will find it frustratingly esoteric. For me though, it was amazing. I love this kind of open-ended, impressionistic filmmaking.
There will be complaints about its thin story and emotional sparseness, but I find it intentional. Iñárritu can write dialogue. Birdman was a stuffed with it. Here, the writer/director is choosing to say something with the silence. The film is like an Ernest Hemingway novel that provides only the tip of the iceberg and asks the viewer to fill in the rest.
The Revenant is also littered with allusions to religion and morality. Fitzgerald tells the story of his own father finding God while he, himself, was once stranded in the wilderness. Glass is haunted by the destroyed remains of a church he finds on his journey. He meets a Pawnee man who is also suffering from the loss of his family, but he warns Glass that revenge is not in his hands, but God’s. Iñárritu lays the groundwork for the themes of his film, but you’ll have to follow them yourself. He isn’t going to spell it out.
As I said, it worked for me. I have my own interpretation of the film, but I’m not going to spell it out either. This is a film with numerous different interpretations, and every viewer will get to experience it differently. Will it work for you? The only way to know is to see it for yourself.