Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson
Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence, including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.
2 hr. 36 min.
First, let’s start by defining the title of this film. The word revenant means “one that returns after death or a long absence.” Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is playing with words here, but you have to give him credit for such skillful use of the English language. He has encapsulated the story of The Revenant with a single term.
As for the rest of the story — add blood and guts, a bear mauling, rape, mutilation, torture, sleeping inside a dead horse, numerous snowy shots of the Canadian Rockies and lots of close-ups of a very bloodied and frozen Leonardo DiCaprio.
In the early 1820s, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) serve as guides for a group of fur trappers led by Cap. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). When their party is attacked by a tribe known as the Arikara (Ree), the hunting party flees downriver and eventually becomes stranded in the Rockies a couple-hundred miles from their fort.
In the meantime, Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear while out hunting. Barely alive, the trapping group is forced to carry him along on a stretcher up into the mountains. Finally, Henry decides that carrying Glass across the mountains is too difficult and leaves him in the care of frontier veteran John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and young accomplice Bridger (Will Poulter). Henry plans to return with aid once they all reach the fort.
Fitzgerald, a bitter and brooding man, has no intention of taking care of Glass or tending to his son Hawk. While Bridger is out scavenging for food, Fitzgerald kills Hawk, buries Glass alive, and forces Bridger to follow him on the long journey back to the fort. Glass, however, crawls out of his earthen grave and makes his own crippled trek home to seek revenge on Fitzgerald.
While the storyline in this film may not be original, it is certainly augmented by Iñárritu’s directing, along with some excellent photography by fellow Mexican and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki Morgenstern.
The script by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith keeps the dialogue sparse but well-spoken. What’s really important in this film is not the word but the overall visual impact of human behavior on the environment, and how that environment recoils on human behavior.
The pairing of DiCaprio and Hardy is a stroke of luck. DiCaprio, known for his willingness to take risks as an actor, is both bone-chilling and compelling. Hardy, a gifted actor in his own right, demonstrates that his villainy is really an outcome of his will to survive. One of the most profound scenes in the film involves Fitzgerald explaining to Bridger how his father found God by shooting a squirrel. His eyes challenge the boy to interpret whether or not Fitzgerald actually believes what his father told him.
And this is the theme that seems to drive the film. What are we at the cores of our beings but survivors who have shaped both humanity and nature to bend to our will, and yet, that act of will is nothing more than a struggle to survive. Something greater than we are exists in this world. Call it nature or spirits or God or some other title. Our behavior against that something is what defines us as human beings, and that something in return is why we continue to struggle.
There are moments when this film seems to search and wander, but I believe this approach is deliberate. In the end, when Glass stares into the camera, I think that Iñárritu decides there is no clear answer to that search. The story goes on and so does the struggle. For Iñárritu, we live in a constant state of search and struggle. One story ends, another begins. Life goes on, but the question for both Glass and Iñárritu becomes, what now?