Movie review: The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio undergoes a horrendous series of trials — including that famous bear attack — in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s masterful tale of survival
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson
Directed by: Alejandro G. Inarritu
Running time: 156 minutes
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
The amazing thing about The Revenant — a 2½-hour trek through a chilling wilderness of violence, fear, hatred, eviscerations, elemental beauty, and the most brutal bear attack since the 1940 NFL championship (Chicago 73, Washington 0) — is the speed of its slog. This is the story of some desperate fur trappers in 1823 America who must walk (or hobble) through the woods looking for food, safety, revenge, or just a warm carcass in which to spend the night.
Still it flies along, carried by the propulsive energy one gets when there’s a grizzly, or a native with a thick arrow and a deadly aim, just a few steps just behind.
It’s directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu, who showed in the 2014 movie Birdman his love for a kinetic camera. Here, with the help of the same cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, you get a taste of pure visual storytelling from the first sequence. A band of trappers is suddenly caught in a crossfire of arrows that slice the air and penetrate necks with an ugly thwack. Soon the native attackers are in the trappers’ camp wielding hatchets and knives, and Lubezki’s camera becomes an invisible participant, following this man as he runs for his life and then, giving him up for dead, heads the other way on the flanks of an Indian on a horse as he runs down another victim.
The pace eventually slows, but the dramatic momentum never slackens: you watch frozen, half in fear and half in amazement at what you see.
The trappers are led by decent Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), but they’re a fractious lot, given to the kind of ill-tempered grumbling once reserved for the bad guy’s gang of gunslingers in an old Western or crewmembers on a doomed ship in some seafaring saga. Their guide is Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a woodsman who once lived among the local Nee tribe, who has brought along his teenage son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck.)
As the surviving trappers run for safety, Glass is attacked by a bear. This is The Revenant’s defining sequence, and it’s a masterpiece of special effects, a frighteningly realistic picture of nature red in tooth and claw. Watching DiCaprio’s head being pushed down into the snow by a massive hairy paw with huge hooked nails, you take on a new appreciation of what it means for an actor to commit himself to a role. This is hardly a performance: it’s a record of survival.
It’s also the sort of thing that could haunt an entire movie, except that The Revenant is already haunted by the memory of the opening attacking. Stick around and there’s a lot more to be haunted by.
Glass becomes so ill that he is left for dead by two men — the grumpy and menacing Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and the naïve young Bridger (Will Poulter) — who bury him in a shallow grave. But he lives, pulls himself up, fashions a cane out of a branch, and begins to stagger, or sometimes crawl, across the vast and hopeless fields, seeking to settle the score.
Based on a true story (and adapted from a book by Michael Punke), The Revenant is a deceptively stripped-down tale; so quiet you can hear the ice crack. It accrues meaning as it moves along. Glass’s torments — and DiCaprio’s as well, one imagines — tumble down snowy hills, into cold streams and go, at one stage, into the body of a dead horse that he has to gut first so he can use it as a sleeping bag. Whatever they paid DiCaprio for this, it wasn’t enough.
The worst perils, however, are human: the troops who have slaughtered an Indian village, the French trappers who have abducted a native woman, the natives who are on their trail, relentlessly. “You have stolen everything from us,” one of them says, a theme that expands later when we see the white man’s fort is surrounded by Indians squatting in poverty.
The villainy is wrapped up in Fitzgerald, who wears his scars on the outside (he was half-scalped by Indians years before) as well as in. It’s another amazing performance by Hardy: he once again hides entirely within a character, leaving no traces of the signature roles — Mad Max, Bronson, Bane — that might have defined a lesser actor. He gives The Revenant its human element; it’s no accident that it’s humanity at its ugliest.
The Revenant is probably half an hour too long, and it could have done without some of the spiritual daydreams that Glass has about his family. This isn’t the kind of story that needs to be dressed up with symbolism. But at its heart, it’s cinema at its purest.
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