America’s snow-covered 19th century wilderness is the primary antagonist in director/co-screenwriter Alejandro González Iñárritu’s wildly ambitious adaptation of a novel by Michael Punke. While the film has its flaws (it runs long at 156 minutes yet the ending feels rushed) Leonardo DiCaprio’s virtuosic (largely silent) performance goes hand-in-glove with the story’s brutal snowy set pieces.
One such sequence, about a bear mauling, has Iñárritu using state-of-the-art filmic technology to create a startling depiction of violent reality. The visceral result is unlike anything you've seen before. This is hold-onto-your-seat scary stuff. Iñárritu’s regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki frames the almost exclusively outdoor action with a poetic visual sensibility.
Survival and revenge make for a marathon storyline that follows a shrinking band of fur-trappers led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass character. Native American tribes launch repeated attacks against the white men who kill them, their animals, and steal their land. The year is 1823 in the territories now divided into the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. Glass is a different type of interloper. He lives in the territory with his Arikara Native American wife and their son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Caught between two worlds, Hugh Glass presents a walking contradiction, and not an entirely sympathetic protagonist.
Glass achieves “animated corpse” status after being twice mauled by a mother-bear.
Tom Hardy’s opportunist trapper Jon Fitzgerald is hired to stay behind and look after Glass, alongside Hawk and another trapper. Needless to say, Fitzgerald has plans of his own that don’t involve playing wilderness nurse to Glass, whom he abandons. But Hugh Glass proves tougher than nails when left alone to survive in the harsh elements with revenge on his mind.
“The Revenant” works better as a survival adventure story than it does than a revenge fantasy. The cautionary aspect of chasing revenge gets mitigated in a violent climax undermined by a pat element involving the Arikara tribe. That said, this is big-screen spectacle with plenty of heart and flesh at stake. Not since Kevin Macdonald’s “Touching the Void” has a film made its audience feel so cold and desperate. Dress warmly.
Rated R. 153 minutes. (B+) (Four Stars — out of five / no halves)