An unforgiving tale of survival and vengeance that’s also a meditative tone poem about the ones we have loved and those we vowed to protect, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” is another impressive, technically spellbinding drama from the filmmaker, coming on the heels of his Best Picture winner, “Birdman.” This time, Iñárritu crafts a grueling drama superficially about implacable revenge, but the austere picture is actually deceptively thoughtful, tapping into themes of broken promises, collecting spiritual debts, and acting as an abstract plea for clemency and humanity. A punishing movie that grinds you through the paces of brutal physical suffering and intense emotional loss, “The Revenant” is unflinching in its depiction of barbarous acts. The film has three modes and they are arguably monochromatic: one of romanticized flashback dreams; another of alternately spiritual, Terrence Malick-y naturalistic reflection; and then the all-encompassing bitter chill of the world’s hostility vis-à-vis bone-crushing violence and hardship. Sprawling across two-and-a-half hours featuring harrowing experiences in the cruel wilderness, the skeletal narrative about payback may not feel like it boasts enough meat on the bone to justify its lengthy existence. Though it may feel threadbare for some, Iñárritu’s exhausting movie is still unforgettably visceral and there’s so much to be dazzled and experientially shaken by.
Set in the inhospitable world of early 1800s trappers toiling away for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, “The Revenant” focuses on Hugh Glass (a fully committed Leonardo DiCaprio), a taciturn, first-rate hunter and guide. As the head tracker of the Company, the respect and leadership Glass commands begins to chafe on a rival trapper, the envious and power-hungry John Fitzgerald (a more tolerably mumbly Tom Hardy). When crisis strikes in the form of an Arikara Indian tribe raid and Fitzgerald begins to undermine Glass’ expertise, their already strained relationship becomes virulent when the distrustful subordinate threatens Glass’ half-Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Tensions boil, but ultimately, Glass is chosen to lead the way to safety.
On the run, while foraging for food, Glass is viciously mauled by a Grizzly bear trying to protects her cubs — an astonishing sequence that is jaw-dropping in its ferocity. With bloodthirsty Natives on the company’s tail trying to finish the job, the mortally wounded Glass is a bloody liability. Still, the honorable Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) vows to pay obscene amounts of money to any man that will stay behind and ensure that Glass is kept safe until they can return with reinforcements or give him a proper burial if he succumbs to his wounds. The opportunistic Fitzgerald, along with Glass’ son and the young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), agree to tend to the dying hunter, but it doesn’t take long for Fitzgerald to betray all his pledges and abandon everyone. Through sheer force of will and nearly super human determination, Glass, left for dead, manages to crawl back to life and the ruthless tale of reprisal and survival begins to take shape.
The hauntingly spare tenor and relentless punishment of “The Revenant” may not be the easiest sit at times, but there is much to admire. Superstar cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s panoramic vistas and breathtakingly choreographed action set pieces — the majority of the movie is shot in gorgeous, soft-hued natural light — make him a shoo-in at this year’s Oscar race. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s plangent score is subtle, but emotionally poignant, and, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio palpably scorches in scenes of brutal affliction and hot-blooded retribution. One scene in particular, with Glass crippled and immobile, losing one of his loved ones right before his eyes, is one of the most wrenching moments you’ll have seen on screen this year. DiCaprio’s visceral rage is so devastating, he appears as if he’ll break into full-blown seizures at any moment.
Then there are the phenomenal set pieces. The opening sequence — the aforementioned Arikara incursion — is a blitzkrieg, all out assault that boasts extreme long takes and incredibly complicated layers of orchestral action expertly timed with Lubezki’s gliding camera movements. This sequence alone makes “The Revenant” worth watching, but that’s to say nothing of the Grizzly attack, which is a triumph of naturalistic CGI and practical effects. DiCaprio’s frontiersman is savagely thrashed by the convincing VFX-driven animal and the attack is so excruciating it bludgeons the audience, too.
Perhaps less successful are the movie’s dreamy, poeticized flashbacks, with Glass yearning for his wife and recalling the vows given to his young child. They can feel simplistic, but are the crucial motivation that compels the character to endure, not yield, to the shroud of death that always looms nearby. Iñárritu doesn’t possess the facility to savor sweet revenge the way Quentin Tarantino or Park Chan-wook do (the latter of which once was set to direct “The Revenant”), as both often employ gallows humor in their approach. Instead, the filmmaker makes it personal, through family, children, and those we adore, which makes every betrayal feel like a existential laceration. Blanketed with adversity and rancorous conditions, the few acts of human kindness are so rare and unexpected they leave their own kind of distinguishing mark.
What eventually reveals itself after hours of vindictive bloodshed, severe travail, and the frostbitten hostilities of the wild, is a movie about the isolating horrors of a world without mercy. “The Revenant” gives no quarter, and in the absence of all love and goodwill, it seemingly begs the viewer to confront the terrifying notion of an existence without compassion and human decency (in this sense, it’s also subtly, subversively political and resonant to the times around us). One of the unsettling, but key elements of Innaritu’s bruising movie is its grim, arguably unsatisfying, and even ambiguous ending (or at least its final shot). But this is the point. By depicting such constant savagery and the vengeance that DiCaprio’s Glass ultimately finds no salvation in, “The Revenant” actually makes the case for benevolence by making us feel the ache of its uninterrupted void. Fierce and unremitting, “The Revenant” is a tragic moral lament about eye-for-an-eye reprisals that says a cruel, heartless world is just not worth living in. [B+]