The Revenant is not the Second Coming. Your ability to stomach its ferocious violence, emotional iciness and gut-wrenching gore are not litmus tests for your machismo. And for the record, a bear does not rape Leonardo DiCaprio. So now that we’ve dispensed with that widely circulated awards-season nonsense, let’s just say that The Revenant is a stunning, impeccably made, hauntingly poetic western. It’s also long, immersive, demanding, spooky and metaphysical. Imagine Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman gang-directing a visionary apocalyptic saga set against jaw-dropping landscapes as terrifying as they are gorgeous. This is by way of warning that The Revenant is bound to send some audiences straight up the wall.
Oscar winner Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) directed it and cowrote the screenplay with Mark Smith from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, which was inspired by incidents in the life of nineteenth-century fur trapper Hugh Glass. While on a hunting trek along the Missouri river, Glass got mauled by a bear and virtually buried alive by a bigoted fellow explorer (played by Tom Hardy) who killed his mixed-race son, stole Glass’ furs and left him for dead. DiCaprio plays Glass and, like Richard Harris in 1971 western Man in the Wilderness (an earlier big-screen take on the same story), he suffers and suffers and suffers. Given very little dialogue, he stares and grunts a lot, and he’s fantastic at both; he looks like the movie put him through hell. Finally, DiCaprio feels like a man instead of boyish man. If they give Oscars for that, he could take the gold boy home.
Stripped to its core, The Revenant is really just a classic revenge/survival odyssey, a long, protracted pursuit – you couldn’t call it a chase – during which DiCaprio’s character metaphorically rises from the dead and crawls his way through dirt and mud, enduring bone-chilling cold, rain, blizzards, primordial terrain, wolves, bison and deadly Pawnee arrows to unleash some righteous whoop-ass on Hardy. Inarritu and his astonishing cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezk, using only natural light, put us right there with him every lonely, relentless, miserable step of the way, right up close as he’s brought to his knees by the loss of his son and reduced to gnawing at animal guts and sleeping in the steaming carcass of a dead horse for warmth. Hardy is darkly funny, menacing and just great in his role. Although he gets more dialogue than DiCaprio, a good third of it is incomprehensible, so call it a draw.
The film is so stuffed with majestic tracking shots, bravura sequences and poetic imagery that some will call masterful while others call it pretentious. Sometimes, it’s both. The Revenant is an ordeal, all right, but a bleak, beautiful, grueling, ambitious and unforgettable one.