Humans seemingly have an endless capacity for suffering, and the new revenge western, The Revenant, pushes those tolerances to the limit. Using man, beast, and nature, director Alejandro González Iñárritu creates some unforgettably grueling sequences. There is also extraordinary beauty, with some first-rate cinematography and stunning sound design. Sadly, repetition in the final hour diminishes much of the film’s power. It becomes less a tribute to the human spirit than a voyeuristic showcase of bodily horror. Still, the towering technical achievements and bravura sequences are enough to warrant a visit to this grim wilderness.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Revenant is that its main character, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), was an actual frontiersman who really did stagger through the wilderness for six weeks after surviving a vicious bear mauling in 1823. The cinematic version of Glass endures unspeakable hardships and sucking chest wounds because he has a score to settle. Fellow fur trapper and all-around weasel, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), takes away the only thing in the world that still matters to Glass; his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Lukas Haas). Now, Glass is hell-bent upon taking his revenge as he traverses the inhospitable Winterscape of the Upper Midwest.
Iñárritu (Birdman, Amores Perros) immediately grabs you by the throat with the most brilliantly choreographed and photographed battle sequence since the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan. Glass’ fur trading expedition, led by the earnest Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is attacked by a Native American tribe searching for their Chief’s stolen daughter. It’s a haunting scene punctuated by gruesome violence and mesmerizing frenzy. Arrows whiz through various arenas of hand-to-hand combat, with each man literally fighting for their life. Photographed with intimacy and minimal camera trickery, Iñárritu puts you uncomfortably close to frontier warfare.
Location shooting within the United States, Canada, and Argentina gives The Revenant an unshakeable sense of time and place. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki painstakingly captures the unrelenting cold. Shafts of light peeking through an old-growth forest or a flickering flame in an ice cave hint that warmth may someday return, but not before winter is finished with you. The sound design, too, is impeccable, drowning us in the abject desolation. Ancient branches creak and moan beneath the winds, as elk call to one another through an impenetrable fog bank. To be alone in this place would truly be a horrible fate.
Where Iñárritu and his co-writer Mark L. Smith falter is their reliance upon an uninspiring vengeance premise. This isn’t a man trying to survive because his family needs him or he’s been separated from his regiment; this is a man charred black inside with rage. Had the intense pacing of the opening sequences continued throughout the film, perhaps this vengeance quest might have sustained its momentum (see: John Wick). Instead, things slow to a crawl, quite literally, as Glass makes his way through one punishing hardship after another. Given that we know Glass must endure until the final scene in order to face his nemesis, these predicaments are little more than masochistic filler. His story of survival holds no hope of enlightenment; just one last opportunity to lash out. Imagine giving Tom Hanks a revenge motive in Cast Away and you have some idea how unnecessary a motivation it becomes in the face of certain death.
Story threads come and go like snow covered trails. At one point, we’re following three separate quests; Glass hunting Fitzgerald, Captain Henry leading the surviving members of his party back to the fort, and the Pawnee Chief searching for his daughter. Eventually, Henry and the Chief’s quests fade away, leaving the film to focus on the repetitive torture of Glass. Everyone is reduced to just sitting around, awaiting the eventual return of Glass. It’s a sharp departure for Iñárritu, who usually prefers interweaving stories and plot lines into one cohesive narrative. It makes The Revenant feel oddly small despite its epic scale.
DiCaprio is to be congratulated for bringing complete authenticity to this physically demanding role, but there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about his performance, either. The role mainly requires him to take a beating and to grunt a lot. There’s more heavy breathing in The Revenant than a late-night phone sex line! Hardy has a bit more fun as the lecherous Fitzgerald. He’s not wrong about anything he says, particularly when he makes a convincing case for leaving the injured Glass behind, but his motivations are ugly through and through. The film’s most sympathetic character is a kid named Bridger (Will Poulter), who falls prey to the conniving Fitzgerald despite his steadfast allegiance to Glass. This film benefits from his wide-eyed naiveté tempering the relentless nihilism.
Still, there’s no denying the majesty of The Revenant. Its deeply flawed and repetitive story structure is no match for the captivating sequences and stunning imagery that will linger in your mind. While it fails to add anything new about the futility of vengeance, it never misses a chance to show you something hauntingly beautiful. It’s the type of uncompromising filmmaking that serious cinephiles can’t resist.