Review: The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s extraordinary tale of revenge and survival.

By Max Weiss. Posted on January 08, 2016, 9:01 pm

-Twentieth Century Fox

[To me, there are a tolerable level of spoilers in this review. But if you are truly spoiler-averse, I’d steer clear.]

In The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s grueling but engrossing tale of survival and revenge in the American frontier, there is no love greater—or more primal—than that between a parent and a child.

Our hero, the tracker and hunter Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is raising his half-Pawnee teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) on his own. Hawk’s mother is dead, and the white men who killed her left Hawk badly burned on one side of his face. Survival in the Midwestern wilderness is a day-to-day—sometimes minute-by-minute—struggle, where imminent threats include wild animals, the punishing elements, and Native American tribes defending their land. Iñárritu emphasizes how defenseless these frontiersmen were—slogging through snow and high-water, their parkas and fur coats drenched, their fingers frost-bitten, their faces caked in mud and sometimes blood. Glass has instructed his son—an outsider already because of his mixed race—to remain watchful and vigilant; to stay quiet and just breathe (i.e. survive). He can administer tough love to Hawk—yelling at him to stay quiet and heed his advice—but he can also be a tender, doting father, stroking his son’s face and whispering to him in Pawnee.

“My son’s all I got,” he says at one point.

Hawk and Glass have taken up with a group of fur-trappers on an expedition. The group is led by the decent Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson), but among its ranks is the mercenary John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a man with no honor, no love, no loyalty to anything except for his own survival. What makes Fitzgerald particularly despicable is the fact that he sees himself as a practical man, even a man of God, and is able to justify all sorts of ruthless behavior. DiCaprio has gotten lots of Oscar buzz for his role as Glass—and rightly so—but Hardy, his voice a menacing growl, his eyes seething with contempt for the weak, his half-scalped skull a reminder of how tough and battle-tested he really is, is every bit his equal here.

Early in the film, Glass and his company are raided by a tribe of Arikara—or Ree—Native Americans and more than two-thirds of his team dies. The raid is brilliantly shot by Iñárritu—the camera swirls from one kill to the next, from Glass’s scrambling cohorts to the Ree on horseback; arrows and bullets haphazardly fly; at point, Glass shoots a man high in a tree who falls to the ground with a thud.

Once the few survivors are temporarily safe, Glass goes off on his own to hunt. The minutes he see a small pack of grizzly bear cubs he knows he’s in trouble—where there are cubs, there is a protective mother bear (our theme again!) and she charges toward him, mauling him. This attack, already famous for its graphicness and brutality—and for some wackadoo on Drudge who thought it was a bear rape—goes on for quite a long time (it’s minutes, but it seems much longer) until Glass finally manages to somehow shoot the bear dead. He’s discovered by his company, barely alive, and it’s Fitzgerald, unsurprisingly, who immediately suggests a “mercy kill.” Henry, however, takes a more compassionate approach and offers to pay two men to stay behind to care for Glass until his inevitable death and then give him a proper burial. Hawk’s young friend Bridger (a great Will Poulter) volunteers—and when both he and Hawk agree to give up their share of the payment, Fitzgerald becomes the unlikely third caretaker.

It’s while Hawk and Bridger are out scavenging for food that one of the film’s most intense scenes (and that’s saying a lot) takes place: Fitzgerald leans over Glass and tells him to blink his eyes if he wants to die. Glass, who can’t speak because of the wounds on his neck, stares wildly at Fitzgerald, trying to keep his eyes open. Of course, he must eventually blink and Fitzgerald takes that opportunity to stick a sock in his mouth and begin reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Hawk sees him, tries to stop him, and, in the ensuing battle, Fitzgerald stabs Hawk in his gut, killing him.

From there, The Revenant becomes a revenge film, as Glass, who manages to survive being half-buried alive, stumbles through the wilderness tracking Fitzgerald. Along the way, he suffers the veritable trials of Job, falling in rapid waters, fleeing the Ree tribe, cauterizing his own wounds with steel and fire, eating raw bison and fish, and, in one astonishing scene, sleeping in the carcass of his dead horse, for warmth.

The parenting theme emerges again, in two important ways. The Ree chief is looking for his daughter, Powaqa, who was snatched by a group of French hunters after a raid. And, later, Glass is rescued by a Pawnee man whose own family was killed by a Sioux tribe. The Pawnee gently tends to Glass’s wounds and even builds him a makeshift teepee to protect him while he heals. He tells Glass that he is not seeking revenge for the death of his wife and children because, “Revenge is in the creator’s hands.”

The Revenant is a punishing film, but it’s a beautiful one, too—as Iñárritu emphasizes both the beauty and brutality of nature. Of course, duality is one of the film’s other big themes—man’s capacity for both good and evil. Fitzgerald, who calls the Ree tribe “savages” is the film’s worst savage, by far. There are good men and bad men in those woods, irrespective of skin color. But over and over again, Iñárritu points out that “goodness” is relative. “Those pelts are stolen,” a French trapper says to a member of the Ree tribe who is trying to sell the stolen skins from the raid. “It is they who stole our land from us,” the tribesman replies.

DiCaprio is splayed open here, literally and figuratively, as a man who claims he doesn’t fear dying because “I done it already.” In so many of his roles, DiCaprio is a wheedler, a fast-talker, a charmer—but he spends large chunks of this film unable to talk at all. It’s an enormously physical performance—both in the terror and determination he’s able to express in his eyes and the actual physical tasks he’s forced to perform. I can’t emphasize this enough: It’s not a great performance because it’s an endurance test, it’s a great performance because DiCaprio, one of our most famous humans, gives himself so fully to the part that he actually becomes Glass.

As for Iñárritu, he’s been accused of prettifying his films too much, adding a few too many directorial flourishes—like a spray of campfire sparks in the night sky or lingering shots of water rushing over rocks—but I found those touches (mostly) welcoming. (I also adored his sparing use of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s haunting score.) Iñárritu is a virtuoso but, to me, he’s not a soulless one. He deals in big weighty themes, like the paradoxes of nature and man’s capacity for love and survival, and does so without apology. The Revenant is the kind of film that doesn’t benefit from ironic detachment. You need to immerse yourself in it, give over to it completely. I did—and found the experience extremely rewarding.

Max Weiss is the managing editor of Baltimore and a film and pop culture critic.
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