Hold a single-shot pistol to Jack London’s head and force him to snort a pile of coke while writing an epic survival story and you’ll only begin to get the gist of the cold road of revenge Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant voyages down. On the heels of a Best Direction Oscar win for Birdman, Iñárritu tackles the true story of American pioneer and trapper Hugh Glass, who was robbed and left for dead after being ripped to shreds by a grizzly. The bear even got him across the throat, for chrissakes. Fueled by revenge and raw bison, Glass made the grueling 200-mile trek back to civilization to take revenge on the backstabbers who tried to bury him alive.
A story this mental doesn’t call for embellishment, but Iñárritu adds heaps of dramatic touches that add to Glass’ merciless drive. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (two-time Oscar winner for Gravity and Birdman) captures a near overwhelming amount of staggering natural beauty – making The Revenant a righteously crafted film that mixes gorgeous landscapes with brutal early 19th century machismo. Added to this cinematic stew is a hands-down incredible ensemble that includes Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Brendan “Rampage” Fletcher, and a wickedly vile Tom Hardy as the southern-fried villain. Of course, Leonardo DiCaprio (Critters 3) is the star whose mug takes up the entire movie poster, but this truly is an ensemble film.
Beginning with a harrowing scene pitting pioneers against Natives, The Revenant’s first 10 minutes set a deeply tense atmosphere for the remaining two hours and 20 minutes. Shot in loooong takes, this initial action scene is a stunningly orchestrated battle. It hurts my head thinking they had to do more than one take of this madness. There were a few shots during this scene (and a few others throughout the film), where I honestly had no idea how they got the shot. Computers were used for some, obviously, but post-production inserts are tough to spot. This bad boy is just plain seamless in its action scenes.
Which there is a handful of. The Revenant is a hefty movie at 2.5 hours, but the ebb and flow of its pace barrels along. It’s a bleak ride, but Iñárritu includes glimpses of hope in the form of visions Glass experiences. These visions offer some relief after long sequences of desperate survival and tension. Lubezki (who just may become the first cinematographer ever to win three Oscars in a row) moves his camera in a graceful fashion that had me hypnotized the entire time. It’s National Geographic eye candy, for sure.
Following the initial skirmish scene, the crucial relationships in the film are revealed. Namely, that between Glass (DiCaprio) and his Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Glass lived with the Pawnees for some time and wedded in the tribe. Life was peaceful there. He even learned their language. Then soldiers murdered his wife. Glass and Hawk took to the pioneer life, joining up with Andrew Henry (Gleeson) and his band of trappers collecting pelts in the wintry hell of North Dakota. One member of the group, John Fitzgerald (Hardy), has a real hard on for Native Americans. He was nearly killed by one years back and almost lost his scalp (the scalp makeup on Hardy is so gross, à la Chop-Top). Fitzgerald takes every verbal jab he can at Hawk, smearing the tension thick in scenes shared by DiCaprio and Hardy.
Then we come to the bear scene. No, DiCaprio isn’t raped by the mother grizzly protecting her cubs. The rumor was so idiotic that’s all I say about it. He is, however, torn up within an inch of his life. The attack itself lasts about five minutes and it is fucking brutal. Even more gruesome is the scene immediately after when Henry stitches Glass’ back and throat. That’s when we get a good look at how bad the wounds are. That’s when a lot of people are gonna flinch.
Glass miraculously survives the mauling – left with scars that would make even Martin Riggs throw up. The group cannot traverse the snowy terrain dragging his makeshift stretcher along, so Fitzgerald and young Jim Bridger (Poulter) agree to stay behind while the others move on to Fort Union for help. Hawk stays behind with his old man too, but it’s not long before the opportunistic and cowardly Fitzgerald kills him as Glass watches.
The real Glass didn’t have a son, but Hawk’s death in the film makes Glass all the more sadistically thirsty for revenge. On Glass’ long journey, he encounters serpentine French trappers, Natives, and Mother Nature at her most unforgiving. Through it all, DiCaprio delivers a near silent performance consisting of grunts, groans, and facial expressions ranging from “I’m screwed” to “Ah, screw it, I’m going in.”
He only speaks about 15 lines of English in the whole film – the rest is Pawnee. It was an infamously difficult shoot (several crewmembers walked away from it) and those conditions show on DiCaprio’s weather-beaten face. It’s tough to “fake” being in agony when you’re crawling through a river on your belly in freezing temperatures. Homeboy is a vegetarian and was so committed he even ate raw bison liver on camera!
Speaking of bison liver, the most graphic scenes in the film involve animal guts. If that type of stuff makes you feel faint, buckle up.
In its scope, The Revenant is absolutely tremendous. It’s an “epic” story that actually feels epic. The payoff most revenge films hinge on is absent, as it’s not so much a story about getting revenge but a mediation on the act itself. There’s no catharsis here. The road there is a long and rabid one and the destination is ultimately more spiritual than bloody. When it’s over, chances are you’ll feel as messed up and brutalized as Glass must have been. In a good way, of course.
The Revenant opens in limited release December 25 and everywhere January 8.
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