Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the renowned Mexican film maker whose last film, Birdman, left film critics and cinephiles breathless and bereft of enough superlatives to laud the film’s genius while also leaving many casual movie goers scratching their heads and wondering what on Earth they were watching, has again produced a film in The Revenant whose appeal will most likely be dependent on just how you care about artistic cinema. On the one hand, in terms of directing, photography, and production design, the film is nothing less than a masterwork, a completely immersive experience for the viewer that never fails to feel authentic as it depicts one of 19th Century America’s most infamous frontier survival legends.
On the other hand, that experience is, in fact, so immersive that the film simply becomes a brutal endurance test in and of itself. At more than 2 and 1/2 hour in length, with long stretches during which there’s little to no dialogue whatsoever and at times gruesome to the point of being gratuitous, the production seems to be obsessed with its own ingenuity in replicating scenes of horror committed in the name of greed, retribution, or simple self-preservation. It doesn’t seem to matter to all parties involved whether or not what they’re producing is actually enjoyable to watch; on the contrary, it seems far more important to create a film that’s so harrowing in its stark realism that it’s likely to leave viewers as emotionally beaten down and exhausted as the characters on-screen are by the time the credits roll.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays real life American frontiersman Hugh Glass, who along with his Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) serve as guides for a fur trapping and exploratory expedition along the Missouri River led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Glass and Hawk do what they can to keep the group moving safely through the unexplored wilderness, but far more dangerous to all of them than any wildlife are the Arikara, nicknamed the “Ree” by the Americans, a native tribe driven to rage and violence against American settlers after having been displaced from their lands time and again over the course of decades of colonial expansion.
After a bloody attack by the Ree leaves their party numbers decimated, Glass, Captain Henry, and the few remaining survivors cut their fur trapping efforts short and instead make their way north toward a fort where hopefully they can find shelter and safety. But along the way, Glass is savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, the damage to his body leaving him on the brink of death. Though at first Captain Henry insists that the group carry the injured Glass with them as they continue their journey, the mountainous terrain and growing cold soon make it impossible. Unwilling to leave any man to die alone in the wild, he leaves Glass with Hawk and two additional men, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and orders to stay with Glass until he expires and to give him a proper burial.
The events that follow the Captain’s departure form the emotional crux of The Revenant, as in very short order Glass does, in fact, find himself alone with his injuries, with only his resourcefulness and his will to not only survive but also avenge himself to help keep him alive day after day as the temperatures drop, food grows scarce, and the threat of the Ree continues to lurk just beyond the edges of his vision, they themselves on their own mission of blood and retribution.
The Revenant is arguably at its most entertaining in its first act, which features a battle sequence between the Ree and the trappers which may just re-define how Plains War-era skirmishes are depicted on film. Iñárritu and Oscar-winning director of photography Chivo Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity) let the camera follow characters fleeing from the arrows coming at them in all directions, creating a visceral sense of panic and chaos even as the few seasoned soldiers attempt to defend themselves and organize a retreat. In its own way, it’s as jaw-dropping a cinematic visual as those first rapid-fire scenes in Birdman were as you attempted to acclimate to the film’s storytelling style and grasp what was happening. The technical expertise at work throughout The Revenant is as evident here as anywhere else in the film, but it’s during these sequences when there’s not only that evidence of mastery, but also genuine excitement and palpable momentum that an audience can feel and relish as they might in a well-crafted horror or suspense film. If your heart isn’t beating faster and your adrenaline going by the time this sequence ends, you might want to see a doctor to confirm that you are, in fact, still alive.
But once that sequence is done, the film slows to a virtual crawl, matching the pace of the wayward group attempting to carry the wounded Glass to safety, and rarely returns to the heights of tension and suspense attained in the early going. Yes, the bear attack on Glass as depicted on film is utterly terrifying, unlike anything most likely you’ve ever seen depicted on film, and the subsequent desperate measures Glass takes in order to eat and keep himself warm despite his many grievous injuries are all displayed with unflinching realism — if anyone warns who has seen the film warns you not to eat before you see it, believe them. But there is, in fact, so much of that unflinching realism that the question becomes is all of it really necessary. Certainly, the clear commitment to cultural and environmental authenticity is clear in every frame, and that’s to be commended, particularly in a period piece, but really, are scenes of multiple disembowelings truly necessary to get the point across? For the average movie goer, the answer is most likely “no.”
And that’s really what it boils down to for The Revenant in terms of its mass appeal. Hardcore fans of DiCaprio and Hardy’s work will no doubt be left singing the film’s praises, as each performer delivers another study in commitment to character and emotional intensity. Hardy in particular, ever the chameleon with a gift for changing his manner and pattern of speech depending on the character he’s playing, is compelling here as Fitzgerald, the film’s most prominent human antagonist. Fans of Iñárritu’s previous work, not just Birdman but also 21 Grams and Babel, will see and appreciate the director’s unmistakable craftsmanship in the vision of the film and in the way he gives character to the bleak landscapes that form the ultimate obstacles to Glass’s survival throughout the film. And fans of westerns and survival dramas will have one more memorable cinematic venture into the wilderness to enjoy. As one fellow critic put it after seeing the film, “this is The Grey on steroids.”
But for everyone else looking for a good time or a solid adventure film at the movies on a Saturday night, The Revenant is a sure-fire buzz kill. One telling scene in the film features Glass carving into the ice words that describe his motivation to keep going and stay alive in order to remind himself of that motivation, because it’s been so long and he’s been through so much that its difficult to remember. Audiences may feel something similar watching that scene, as though they may need to be reminded exactly why they’re still watching the movie as it moves at its torturously glacial pace. If you’re looking for pure cinematic art, you should be pleased with what Iñárritu and his cast deliver here. If you’re looking for entertainment, on the other hand, or at least something you don’t have to worry will make your dinner come back up while watching it, best look elsewhere.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard, Arthur Redcloud. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Running Time: 156 minutes
Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.