Iñárritu’s evocative and impressively shot follow-up to Birdman plays loose with history
The Revenant is a mighty spectacle; a grueling wilderness adventure; a gritty tall tale that has at least some basis in historical actuality; a snow-filled Western peopled by mountain men, Native Americans, fur trappers, and roaming warriors of several sorts.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a fur-trapping adventurer who underwent the now-legendary ordeal dramatized, at length and in harsh and intimate detail, in this tumultuous action drama. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) deploys DiCaprio through long-take action scenes in perilous location settings, with the result that the actor’s physical exploits very nearly become one with those of the character.
In 1823, Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear during a fur-trapping expedition somewhere along the Grand River, a tributary of the Missouri River. His companions—including Major Andrew Henry (played by Domhnall Gleeson), John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and teenage Jim Bridger (Will Poulter)—judged him to be mortally wounded and, eventually, left him for dead. But he did not die. In time, he made the arduous trek all the way back to Fort Henry, the expedition’s home base.
In legend, at least, Glass crawled most or all of that distance. The film, which is based on a novel by Michael Punke, sticks with the legend on that point and veers beyond the historical record with others. In this telling, Glass has a Pawnee wife (Melaw Nakehk’o) and a teenage mixed-blood son named Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The wife has been killed by a derelict soldier and the son is in danger from his father’s own comrades.
Most crucially, this version posits Fitzgerald as a treacherous and lethal rival to Glass. The desire for revenge becomes a driving force behind Glass’ epic return journey. And that movie-friendly “motivation” keeps rather forced company with the segments in which Glass seems to draw strength from the earthy, soulful wisdom that he remembers hearing in his departed wife’s utterances. (The title may refer to Glass and his apparent return from the dead, but he sees and feels her living presence often enough for us to guess that the title refers to her as well.)
DiCaprio’s tour-de-force performance is indeed very impressive, but the script’s characterization of Glass feels like a watering-down of the character implicit in his most impassioned actions. Hardy’s Fitzgerald, in turn, is portrayed mostly as a standard-issue redneck villain (something that apparently has no real basis in the historical record). Still, for a few brief flashes, he seems on the verge of a more complex kind of awareness, and in those moments he almost becomes the most interesting character in the film.
At its best, The Revenant is like a widescreen, R-rated version of a really intense Jack London story (“To Build a Fire,” e.g.). The bravura single-take set pieces—Glass’ fight with the bear, Glass struggling to escape detection in the narrow gully of a mountain stream, etc.—are masterfully done.
But while it’s fearsomely meticulous with the grim and strenuous details, it’s also sloppy enough to show DiCaprio firing a single-load musket twice without reloading, or tromping around in an icy creekbed in a way that makes you wonder what Hugh Glass could possibly have done to get dry and stay warm and how the star, and the cast and the crew, actually did do it.