Movie Review: “The Revenant”

Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Say this for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu: he does not make things easy for the audience. He staged the full length of “Birdman” to look like one long, glorious take, and challenged the audience to decipher which bits were fantasy and which were reality. “Babel” put us face-to-face with a sexually confused and oft-naked Japanese teenaged girl. “21 Grams” forced the world to imagine receiving the news that your entire family has been killed in a car accident, and then discovering that your new lover has your deceased husband’s heart inside of him. With “The Revenant,” he ups the squirm factor tenfold, but is careful to balance the film’s savagery – and make no mistake, this is one savage movie – with the most beautiful cinematography you’ll see all year. “Wow, that was one of the bloodiest things I’ve ever…ooh look, pretty mountains!” They’re palate cleansers, so you’re not tasting blood in your mouth for the entire film. Smart, and essential.

It is the 1820s, and a group of New World settlers and hired-gun Englishmen are on a fur-trapping expedition in God’s country. The group is besieged by a Native American tribe hell-bent on retrieving a young woman taken from them by one of the light-skinned invaders. (At this point in time, it was either the English or the French.) Captain Andrew Henry (Domhall Gleeson) looks to master tracker Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) to lead the way, but there is doubt among the surviving group, chief among them professional soldier John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), whether Glass can be trusted after miraculously escaping an impossible situation unscathed. Hugh also has a teenaged son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), whose late mother is of the Pawnee tribe. That doesn’t sit well with some of the white people.

Hugh goes game hunting to find food for the group, but stumbles upon a mother grizzly bear and her cubs, and is mauled by the mother within an inch of his life. The group carries him for as long as they can, but then Henry asks a couple of men to stay behind and watch Hugh for a few days, and then do the right thing if the time comes. Fitzgerald and youngster Bridger (Will Poulter) volunteer, as well as Hawk. Fitzgerald kills Hawk when Bridger isn’t looking (Hugh sees the whole thing, but can still barely speak at this point), and then persuades Bridger to join him and leave Hugh for dead. Hugh doesn’t die.

Yes, “The Revenant” is a revenge thriller set in a different time period than a lot of other somewhat recent revenge thrillers (“Gladiator” comes to mind on a number of occasions, as well as the “Kill Bill” movies, as there was a ‘wiggle your left toe’ aspect to Hugh’s recovery), but there is enough newness to the story to keep the audience engaged. This is a 156-minute film, and while it feels every bit that length, it doesn’t feel long. If anything, it would have felt like a cheat had Hugh been able to suddenly regain certain skills far ahead of schedule, or cover more ground than he otherwise would have. Hugh was a dead man walking, and a dead man walking needs time to recover from his wounds. “The Revenant” gives him that time, our patience be damned.

Bullz-Eye colleague Jason Zingale and I were simultaneously muttering expletives under our breath to each other during the bear mauling. It is one of the most gruesome, most relentless things we’ve ever seen, and it’s all the more impressive because you know that that’s not a real grizzly, but man, it sure looked and felt real. (As an added bonus for sadness: the post-fight reaction from the bear cubs, who are crying for their Mommy to get up.) The movie’s final battle is arguably even more gruesome, and feels disturbingly authentic, which is why anyone who’s not a psychopath should be thankful that they were not born in the late 1700s, because they would have likely died before their 30th birthday.

It’s tempting to compare the performances of DiCaprio and Hardy to each other. Do not do this, as they are playing different sports. DiCaprio spends the majority of the film mute and so horribly broken that he can barely move (the cauterization scene is unthinkable), while Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a brute built for the times, a cold-blooded, deceitful, world-class manipulator who’s always looking for an angle and happy to use his brawn to get his way. (He could have used “Trainspotting”-style subtitles, though, as it was quite difficult to understand most of what he said.) This is the point, of course, that Hugh’s road to recovery, and ultimately revenge, would be a steep one. Both actors had to go about their parts in different ways, and both delivered masterful performances. Having said that, DiCaprio will surely be overlooked again. He always is.

Perhaps the slyest thing about “The Revenant” is that it comes out around the same time as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” “The Revenant” was produced and distributed by 20th Century Fox, the studio that distributed the first six “Star Wars” films. (The new installments will be produced and distributed by Disney.) Towards the beginning of Act III of “The Revenant” is a scene – a nearly unwatchable scene – that re-enacts a bit from a “Star Wars” movie. Is this Inarritu making an in-joke? It kind of feels like it, and that is why “The Revenant” is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in a nutshell: he makes a bloody 19th century revenge film, and throws in a “Star Wars” reference. God love him.