Few prestige directors have so fully committed to the notion of cinema as an endurance test as Alejandro G. Inarritu, and he pushes himself, the audience and an aggrieved 19th-century frontiersman well beyond their usual limits in “The Revenant.” Bleak as hell but considerably more beautiful, this nightmarish plunge into a frigid, forbidding American outback is a movie of pitiless violence, grueling intensity and continually breathtaking imagery, a feat of high-wire filmmaking to surpass even Inarritu and d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on last year’s Oscar-winning “Birdman.” Yet in attempting to merge a Western revenge thriller, a meditative epic in the Terrence Malick mold, and a lost-in-the-wilderness production of near-Herzogian insanity, “The Revenant” increasingly succumbs to the air of grim overdetermination that has marred much of Inarritu’s past work: It’s an imposing vision, to be sure, but also an inflated and emotionally stunted one, despite an anchoring performance of ferocious 200% commitment from Leonardo DiCaprio.
Hard to recognize though he may be under so much blood, grime and unwashed mountain-man mane, DiCaprio will boost the commercial prospects of Fox’s not-so-merry Christmas Day release, which will lean heavily on its award-friendly pedigree to overcome audience resistance to its considerable length and extreme carnage. While the many, many acts of human and animal savagery are doled out judiciously over the 156-minute running time, they’re attenuated to a brutal, can-you-top-this degree, captured in the long, unbroken takes that have become Inarritu and Lubezki’s visual signature (though minus the one-shot digital gimmickry of “Birdman”). The result is a film of robust, overwhelming physicality, filled with striking passages of pure cinema, yet ultimately in thrall to a crude, self-admiring sensibility that keeps catharsis at bay.
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The film was adapted by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith from Michael Punke’s 2002 fact-based novel, which is set in 1823-24 in the territories that now make up the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. While the film never specifies exactly where and when it’s taking place (shooting took place in Canada and Argentina), it faithfully centers around a fictionalized version of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a real-life man of the West who works for the Rocky Mountain Fur Co., skillfully guiding beaver trappers deep into hostile terrain. Theirs is a life of hard work, scarce rations and frequent peril, as we witness firsthand when the men are attacked without warning by Arikara warriors. The film establishes its stylistic approach immediately in this harrowing early sequence, beginning with a single unbroken shot in which tension mounts by the second, only to be relieved by the arrow that comes hurtling out of nowhere to connect with a man’s throat.
As the surviving trappers flee with whatever pelts they can salvage, we feel not just ambushed but surrounded — by the attackers lurking just off screen, by the dense trees looming in Lubezki’s deep-focus compositions, and perhaps most of all by the astonishing sound design, which transforms the music of babbling brooks, rustling trees, thunderous hoofbeats, falling bodies and anguished screams into a wild symphony of woodland chaos. These sounds will be joined, in due course, by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto’s artfully modulated, never-repetitive score, which begins as a series of low, synth-like rumbles that gather melodic force and power as the film progresses.
In short, “The Revenant” must be appreciated first and foremost as a sensory and aesthetic marvel, a brutal hymn to the beauty and terror of the natural world that exerts a hypnotic pull from the opening frame. Its deficiencies as a human drama and a metaphysical meditation will take a bit longer to emerge. Glass is traveling with his teenage son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a descendant of the Pawnee tribe on his mother’s side, and the two regard each other with an understandably fierce protectiveness. The other trappers, led by the principled Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), prove respectful enough of father and son, with the singular exception of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a nasty ne’er-do-well who makes no secret of the fact that his commitment to the party’s mission is purely mercenary.
And so there’s trouble afoot even before Glass ventures out alone and is mauled by a mammoth grizzly bear, in what must surely be the most squirmingly visceral scene of an animal attack on a human committed to the screen, all the more realistic and protracted for being shot in a single take. Glass kills the bear, but not before it all but kills him, leaving horrific wounds in his chest, back and throat, and rendering him unable to speak or walk. The arduous task of carrying the injured party over the rocky and eventually snowy terrain soon threatens the party’s safety, and it’s decided that Glass will be left behind with Hawk, Fitzgerald and a young man, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter, excellent), so that he can receive a proper burial when he inevitably dies.
Things don’t go according to plan, to say the least, and the full, murderous measure of Fitzgerald’s ruthlessness is revealed as he kills Hawk and leaves Glass for dead, with the pitiably naive Bridger in tow. But the lust for vengeance becomes its own form of survival instinct, and Glass manages to claw his way out of a shallow grave, find food, water and shelter, and stay alive long enough for his wounds to begin to heal. Since his character can barely talk — and has almost no one to talk to — DiCaprio must convey Glass’ interior journey almost entirely through grunts, wheezes and sharp, pained exhalations of breath (often misting up the camera in poetic closeups). Often he does this while dragging his clawed and battered body over rocks and soil — a preferrable method of transport, really, to being washed downstream by a turbulent river, or vaulted off a cliff on the back of a horse. These and other unimaginable detours, plus the near-constant threat of death from predators, starvation and exposure, coalesce into a potent study of human endurance and isolation that makes up the film’s strong midsection (finely assembled by Inarritu’s regular editor, Stephen Mirrione).
An unofficial retread of Richard C. Safarian’s “Man in the Wilderness” (1971), which starred Richard Harris as Glass, Inarritu’s film deviates enough from Punke’s novel to have warranted a “based in part” credit, and several of the changes involve the various indigenous characters hovering on the periphery of the drama — including Hikuc (Navajo actor Arthur Redcloud), a traveler who comes to Glass’ aid, and Elk Dog (Duane Howard), an Arikara warrior trying to track down his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), who has been captured by a band of French trappers. But the most significant alteration here is the wholesale invention of Hawk — a touch that aims to humanize Glass, nudge him closer to the right side of history, and instill in him an even more primal hunger for revenge.
Yet through no fault of DiCaprio’s or Goodluck’s, the father-son relationship never develops sufficient emotional conviction to achieve the desired impact; it’s immediately clear that Hawk exists solely so he can die and, as in any melodrama pivoting on the loss of a child, provide an extra twist of the emotional knife. Here and there, Inarritu employs ghostly flashbacks and hallucinations to convey Glass’ love for Hawk and his Pawnee mother, but these visions feel like spectral banalities — and a reminder, in some respects, of the communing-with-the-dead antihero of “Biutiful.” While “The Revenant” is many cuts above that career nadir, it does mark the director’s return to the same glum mood of near-cosmic despair (also apparent in “21 Grams” and “Babel”) after his rare foray into cynical showbiz comedy with “Birdman.”
In all these films, the virtuosity of the storytelling can’t quite disguise a leadenness and lack of modulation that suggest Inarritu’s chief talent is for bludgeoning his audience — sometimes artfully, sometimes merely artily — into submission. The final reckoning between Glass and Fitzgerald is grippingly staged, and audiences hoping to see payback exacted in full will find satisfaction. But here and elsewhere, Lubezki’s camera, with its creeping, darting movements and stealthy 360-degree turns, doesn’t seem to observe the action so much as instigate it. The long-take action sequences begin to feel almost sadistic in their pre-planning. Developments that should be shocking instead take on an air of grinding predictability.
And at every step, the performances suggest a behind-the-scenes experience that couldn’t have been much less arduous than the characters’ on-screen ordeal. Whether he’s sinking his teeth into freshly killed meat, cauterizing his wounds with a torch, or stripping naked and sheathing himself in a still-warm animal carcass, DiCaprio has never been this feral or suffered for his art quite so vividly on screen. His frequently wordless, stripped-to-the-bone turn may not match the live-wire energy and inventiveness of his histrionics in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but it’s as scrupulously, agonizingly detailed a portrait of human suffering as you could ever want to see.
Hardy, whose dialogue is perhaps the least intelligible element of the sound design, makes a coolly unnerving villain whose ruthlessness lies in his gift for bullying persuasion as well as his brute strength. He has another excellent on-screen opponent in Gleeson (having quite a year with “Ex Machina,” “Brooklyn” and the forthcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), cast very effectively against type as a righteous man who takes Glass’ mistreatment as a personal insult. And Howard makes a fleeting impression as the Arikara hunter who emerges every now and then to assert the presence of his people in a movie that is ultimately not a tale of an indigenous tragedy, but of a white man’s retribution.
Perhaps the most useful comparison in that respect is with “The New World,” Malick’s 2005 film about the initially charmed, ultimately tragic first encounter between the Jamestown settlers and the Native American tribes whose way of life they so drastically upended. (Both films were shot by Lubezki and feature ace contributions by production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West.) Those relations have soured irretrievably by the time Inarritu’s movie picks up roughly two centuries later, when the scourge of American imperialism has long since bloodied and corrupted this once-Edenic paradise. But the key difference here is not just of setting, but also of sensibility. The title of “The Revenant” aims to give this renascent avenger a spiritual dimension, but in attempting to steer his dark, fatalistic vision toward something genuinely contemplative and cathartic, Inarritu has managed to appropriate the beauty of Malick’s filmmaking but none of its sublimity — another word for which might be humility. There is plenty of amazement here, to be sure, but all too little in the way of grace.