In the cold winter of early America, a group of trappers and hunters are ambushed by a band of Arikara Indians. The few who survive the merciless attack retreat to base camp. On their way back one of them, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is attacked by a grizzly bear in a prolonged scene of crunching bones and torn flesh. The gruesome encounter is only but a taste of the visceral tone The Revenant takes, wherein the brutality of the wilderness is only matched by the callousness of some of his fellow men.
After surviving the brutal bear attack, Glass is carried by his compatriots and his Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The treacherous trip has one of the men, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) convinced that his own survival is threatened by carrying the ailing Glass, who — from Fitzgerald’s perspective — is but dead weight. The struggle between the two is at the core of this film. When Fitzgerald betrays Glass on several levels, ultimately leaving him for dead, Glass, who can hardly speak, much less move, after the attack finds the strength to get to base camp on his own motivated by revenge. The man-to-man violence feels immediate, as Director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses close, tight shots to not only show the internal struggle but also gives the audience a peek into the turmoil within — few places for respite in this bleak landscape and inchoate society.
Along with the struggle for survival there is an alternative narrative of the group of Native Americans from the Arikara tribe who are also on a quest for retribution. Theirs is a different source of settling the score, looking for the daughter of the tribe’s leader. Although the story does not seem to be woven into the overall film seamlessly, it does provide a point of comparison for the many ways in which justice may be sought in the absence of a higher authority, say a state.
“The Revenant,” or “the one who returns after death” is played with appropriately visceral aplomb by DiCaprio, who traded his signature charming leading man good looks to play the grunting, disheveled but strong Hugh Glass. But the real standout performance comes from Tom Hardy, who embodies Fitzgerald, the outlier of the frontiersmen. His personal story is also cemented in brutality, his face alone carries the burden of trauma being half-scalped and full of scars. In an up-close monologue, Fitzgerald tells of the grisly path he’s endured himself. Fitzgerald is a character study of how a person may find their dark side and stay in that space as an excuse for his own behavior.
The stark landscape and the ruthlessness of nature are beautifully captured by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s cinematography, in what is now a collaboration between director and cinematographer that spans decades. The quiet atmosphere and the inhospitable cold portrayed by Iñárritu is not only of a wide scope, but it is also the perfect blank slate to ask human questions about existential survival. Why keep on going when the prospects for survival are bleak, at best? Is there redemption to be gained from revenge? Is justice enough to keep us going? As Glass keeps on marching on, it is hard to overlook both the frailty and fortitude of human nature. Glass’ refusal to die and survival instinct trump myriad of obstacles in his path, yet his losses throughout this journey begin to seem insurmountable. Survival in the face of having nothing else to lose makes this story compelling and powerful.
Though the violence might be quite stark, it is there for a reason. Reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1988 film A Short Film About Killing, Iñárritu shows the act of killing as a menacing, difficult act both for the victim and the perpetrator. The long take action sequences showcase how the struggles between people are not only physically dangerous but can also diminish that essence that makes us human for all parties involved. Although billed as a revenge film, Iñárritu’s motivation may be different, as the final confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald will reveal.
The Revenant runs 156 minutes and is rated R. It opens nationwide on Jan. 8. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screening last year for awards consideration and the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of the studio.
Indie theater UPDATE: The Revenant opens at O Cinema Wynwood Friday, Jan. 22.