Set in the 1820s, guide and tracker Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), after a vicious mauling by a bear, is left at the mercy of the soulless John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) in the cold, cold wilderness. Prior to his mortal injuries, Glass was attached to a fur trapping operation led by the young, privileged, and idealistic Andrew Henry (Domhnail Gleeson), who has to make the tough decision to leave the suffering Glass behind in the care of Fitzgerald. But once alone with Fitzgerald, Glass and his half Native American son are not safe.
A harrowing tale of survival and revenge, Iñárritu’s script co-written by Mark L. Smith (“Vacancy” and Joe Dante’s “The Hole”) and adapted in part from Michael Punke’s novel may frustrate some viewers who want more structure. At times, the story is almost incoherent, especially as Glass wanders from place to place constantly under attack from mysterious Native Americans.
While it rambles about, the film evolves into what could be described as some kind of nature narrative experiment containing long dialogue-free passages set against breathtaking vistas.
Even though the story may be somewhat slow and difficult to reconcile in places, the pairing of DiCaprio and Hardy, two of the most intense actors working today, is entertaining mainly on a visceral level—bleeding, spitting, chewing, screaming, crying, snorting, and always suffering, quite a human range is on display. DiCaprio is tortured and in terrible pain throughout the bulk of the film, and Hardy, bearing a horrible scar on his head from a past Native American battle, is physically ugly and hardened as he descends farther and farther into selfish madness.
The actors’ animal-like transformations are captured expertly by multiple Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, whom Iñárritu worked with on “Birdman.” Lubezki, also, won the Academy Award for “Gravity,” another solitary tale, and it is not surprising that he lensed Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” as well. It is enough to say that Malick’s work is an acquired taste. And “The Revenant” may have as many committed fans as it does detractors.
My biggest problem with the tale is its depiction of the Native American characters. I was confused as to their motivations and why in the world they would randomly appear and shoot arrows and fire guns at Glass. One explanation is provided, but even that reasoning, regarding the search for a chief’s daughter or wife, is illogical in that instead of capturing Glass and questioning him, they continuously try to kill him.
The constant chase/escape rhythm is more frustrating than exciting, at times. Still, there are moments that do provide several thrilling sequences, including one, I will not spoil, that comes surprisingly out of nowhere to help give the narrative an added lift.
One is invited to ruminate upon the images and emotions on display with movies like “Tree of Life” and, now, “The Revenant.” Such introspection is encouraged as we are asked to reflect upon the meaning of revenge and survival. Through a Google definition search, I learned that “revenant” literally means “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.”
Such is a theme in the film in which DiCaprio’s Glass and Hardy’s Fitzgerald are both men who have seen death and returned to walk among the living.