Contrary to chatter on the Internet, Leonardo DiCaprio does not get raped by a bear in The Revenant. His character does, however, get savagely mauled and torn to bloody ribbons by a giant grizzly – and it’s one of the most terrifyingly realistic, relentlessly brutal, and astoundingly conjured scenes I’ve seen in any movie this year. When it was over, it took me a few minutes to lift my jaw off my lap. Released less than a year after he walked off with Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Birdman, his whirligig meta-parlor game about the wages of fame, The Revenant marks Alejandro González Iñárritu’s return to the big screen with a vengeance. Literally. It’s an epic about the existential extremes human beings will go to for revenge. Well, that, and witnessing one of Hollywood’s biggest stars endure a Passion of the Christ-style beating from man, beast, and nature.
DiCaprio plays a real-life 19th century hunter named Hugh Glass, who’s first shown stalking along a stream in some untamed corner of the American West, staring down the barrel of a rifle at a moose. The majestic quiet of the outdoors, the gentle burbling of the water, the whispered voiceovers on the soundtrack – all of these cues seem to be Iñárritu’s way of signaling that for the next two-and-a-half hours, he will be working in the key of Terrence Malick. But before the audience can settle in and commune with the divine glory of nature, the director just as suddenly hurls us into a bloody scrum of man-made chaos and violence. Glass’ camp of white fur trappers is raided by Native Americans who seem to appear from nowhere. The carnage is violent and crazed and sloppy with blood, like the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan, with arrows instead of bullets. Glass, and everyone sitting in the theater watching, is lucky to make it out alive.
Glass is and isn’t a member of this ornery group of pelt traders. He and his young half-Native American son (whom he speaks to in Pawnee) have been hired to guide them to “the edge of the world.” (The film was shot in the snowy wilderness outside of Calgary). And over time, as Glass’ tragic backstory, including the savage death of his Native American wife, is gradually revealed (although never enough of it), it’s clear that this rugged Jeremiah Johnson figure stands apart from the trappers’ greed and self-interest, most menacingly embodied by Tom Hardy’s half-scalped and half-mad Fitzgerald. While Glass tries to lead the men back to the warmth and safety of civilization, he’s viciously attacked by the grizzly bear and barely escapes alive. His throat is slashed, his back is butterflied open, and his bones are pulverized, all of which is enough for Hardy’s Fitzgerald to quickly suggest they leave him for dead. But the group’s leader (played by Domhnall Gleeson) orders Fitzgerald and a shell-shocked greenhorn (Will Poulter) to stay behind with Glass, nurse him back to health, and join back up if and when he recovers.
The two men carry Glass as far as they can, but Fitzgerald is really just buying time until he can get rid of their wounded guide and his son. He wants to collect his money and move on. At the risk of spoiling too much, Fitzgerald gives Glass more than enough reason to will himself back from the dead so he can track the heartless, avaricious bastard down and get payback.
That’s more or less the story. It’s an epic adventure writ small. And for some, that may be enough. But I suspect others will leave The Revenant wishing there was a little more narrative meat on the bone. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu’s savage endurance test of a film almost works better as a series of stunning images and surreal sequences than as an emotionally satisfying story.
Like their collaboration on Birdman, Iñárritu and Lubezki are taking chances with their camera—chances, no doubt, made even more difficult by working with only natural light in frigid conditions. But it pays off, giving the film a singularly strange and haunting beauty. DiCaprio immerses himself into the nearly silent role of Glass. He’s like Job in a fur coat, being put through nature’s wringer with nothing but a few lines of dialogue and the agony etched onto his face at his disposal. When he does talk, his voice reduced to a pained rasp, you feel the weight of his words: “I ain’t afraid to die anymore … I done it already.”
What made Iñárritu’s Birdman so singular and magical was the way his characters’ frantic inner lives meshed with the virtuosic chaos of the director’s bob-and-weave shooting style. They worked in harmony to help tell the story of a man coming undone. Here, story and style never quite get on the same page. They’re not even really in the same chapter. The Revenant is full of indelible images and unforgettable scenes, but there’s also a frustrating chilliness that seems to gust in right off the screen. It’s a movie that’s so focused on dazzling your eyes that it never quite finds its way into your heart. B