For what purpose do you live? What gives the breaths you breathe and the days you face importance? What would power you through pain, through hunger and cold, through danger and desperation? What would keep you going?
In August 1823, during an expedition into the Dakotas, a man is attacked by a bear. He’s mauled, wounded and left at the brink of death. The expedition, chased by a war party of Native Americans, leaves two men behind to care for the wounded man and to bury him once he dies. But when the war party approaches them, the two men take flight and leave the man half-buried in earth and snow. Only he doesn’t die. He crawls out of his grave and, through many trials and tribulations, makes it back home. What would make a man so desperate to keep living?
The journey I described is a real one. Under taken by 19th-century fur trapper and guide Hugh Glass who, while under the command of General Ashley, was left for dead by fellow trappers Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick. After crawling out of his grave, Glass managed to gather enough strength, let maggots eat his rotted flesh, ate berries and roots and slowly made his way to Fort Kiowa, South Dakota. He had some help from friendly Native Americans and even fashioned a canoe. And after he had made it to Fort Kiowa, he set out to find the men who had left him to die. But for what reason would Glass cling to life so fiercely?
The answer, as provided by director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu is revenge. Pure, absolute, white hot revenge. Based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, Iñárritu’s movie follows Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he chases after John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who has murdered Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and lied to Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) in order to collect on a promised cash reward. Glass will suffer through his injuries, suffer pain, cold, hunger, desperation, being hunted by Native warriors and use all his skills to survive and make it back alive. All the while the ghosts of his dead wife and son will haunt him every step of the way. At the same time, Hardy’s Fitzgerald will seek to find a way to spin his lies to Bridger and to Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) in order to cash in his reward before Glass arrives and exposes the truth.
At its core, The Revenant is a story of survival against the elements. This means that the performances are as much physical as they are emotional or conversational. And no one embodies this more than Leo DiCaprio’s Glass. Barring a few lines said here or there, the bulk of his performance is a physical one, against the massive sky above him and the snow and earth beside him. He’s a man who endures biting cold and never-ending hunger, who has to endure being hunted in order to survive and exact revenge against the man who stole everything from him. The movie does play a little loose on the timeline – how long is he laying in the various holes and caves he finds himself in to stay warm and alive? — but by and large sticks to showing us how Glass survives and makes it back. It’s a performance that’s reminiscent of Tom Hanks’ in Castaway and Klaus Kinski’s in Aguirre.
Given this, it means that the more traditional performance falls to Tom Hardy who makes Fitzgerald into a blowhard, a liar and a dangerous fool. He’s a man who’s skilled enough to fight and survive an attack by Native American warriors and capable enough to make his way home in the snow and ice. And yet he’s also a man who cannot stop doubting and questioning every decision made by his leaders, who bitches and moans at everything and who seems to be taking every setback as a personal affront. Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a character we may all know or have run into and easily dislike. He’s greedy but capable. He’s untrustworthy but can be intelligent and even charming at times. It’s this duality that lets him get away with so much – even though his treachery is blindingly obvious to the audience.
The rest of the cast don’t quite rise to as much complexity. Gleeson’s Captain Henry is the traditional military leader who trusts in the men who are meant to guide his party and tries to do the honorable thing by all around him. Poulter’s Bridger has not yet done the deeds that will turn him into an American legend at the point the story takes place. He’s still green and trusting and needing a hand. But his heart is in the right place. Goodluck’s Hawk is a young man trying to find his place in 19th Century America as half-white/half-Pawnee which, combined with the fierce protection of his father, leaves him chafing at the world around him. He’s devoted to his father, but has a hard time as Fitzgerald and others take their racism and grudges against him. Duane Howard’s Elk Dog becomes the face of the Arikara (or Ree as they’re referred to in the movie) natives who hunt Glass. Their reasons are traditional if a bit movieish.
What should be said first is that Iñárritu and crew have made a beautiful movie. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is breathtaking. Filming throughout the Canadian Rockies, Northwest United States and southernmost Argentina to obtain sufficient cold and foreboding forests, the filming was an ordeal for cast and crew. However, when the camera pans up to show you vistas of forests buried in snow or of great rivers flowing without a care, it manages to drive home how great the odds are against Glass. The mountain ranges and snowy passes don’t care if he lives or dies — nor does anything else around him. There’s moments of peace and quiet underneath the stars as well as tremendous blizzards and deadly avalanches and they’re all captured beautifully.
Everything in this movie is designed to compliment that sense of insignificance against the awesome power of nature. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is vast and ephemeral. The art direction and makeup manages to capture the grimy nature of the lives of these men. Even before their ordeals, you get the sense that these were men living at the end of their world and not known for creature comforts. That said, when Glass eats raw meat or when he fashions a warm spot out of animals, you can practically smell the blood and the stink. There are scenes in this movie that will become memes and reference points for moviegoers for years (see: horse tent).
Of particular note, there’s two sequences in the movie that work really well. First is the Arikara attack at the start of the movie which sets our leads to flight and Glass on a course with his bear. Iñárritu does a great job of conveying a sense of chaos and confusion. This isn’t a battle or even a noble stand. Arrows fly from all directions and anyone can fall at any time. The camera work is terrific in this sequence as warriors come from just out of frame to deliver death and people escape towards parts that are not visible to the audience. It really feels like anyone can die at that moment. The other sequence that impresses is the aforementioned bear attack, which starts innocently enough and then descends into flesh-rending terror. It even pauses for a few moments in which you build enough hope that it is all over. But it’s not. The bear, digital I presume, is a creature of strength and power and seeing him toss Glass around like a doll is a reminder of the careless power of nature against a single man.
And yet, if I’m honest, I was mostly left worn out by this movie. Again, it is a beautiful movie and seeing Glass’ journey is memorable. The moment he’s found in the dark. The moment he’s fleeing from the French trappers. The using of a horse carcass to stay warm a la Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back. The final confrontation with Fitzgerald. They’re all good moments. But when it was all said and done, I felt every minute of the 2 hours and 36 minutes of it. Part of it is a feather in the cap of Iñárritu and company who immerse you into their world. No doubts there.
But yet, I’m also somewhat ambivalent towards the movie. Glass’ journey is memorable while Glass as portrayed here is not. All we know about him can be summed up quickly. He married a Pawnee woman who was murdered in an American attack. He killed the man who did it and has raised their son on his own. The son, now taken from him, was all he had. This powers him through his travails and tribulations. He must find the man who killed his son and kill him. The only moments of introspection are aimed at reminding him of all he’s lost: moments in which the spirit of his dead bride lingers over his freezing, injured dreams. And if Glass is only somewhat introspective, Fitzgerald and the others are even less so. Hardy’s Fitzgerald spares no thought for anyone else nor himself but for how he can get ahead. He’s all about getting rich or getting away.
Furthermore, without revealing the reason behind the Arikara attack, let me just say that, once you do find out the culprits, you might feel slightly cheated. Yes, there’s a whole angle there too about revenge and retribution against those who’ve wronged your children that parallels Glass’ journey after Fitzgerald. Similar to lines of poetry rhyming with one another. Even so, it feels a bit cheap and tacked on when you find out who is responsible for everything that has happened. Because it is the attack by the Arikara and their pursuit that propel the actions of all the characters in this movie. It’s the old “If only they could talk to one another for five minutes, this would all be quickly resolved” movie dilemma.
When the showing I went to ended, someone seated next to me said “Powerful movie.” I don’t think it quite gets that high. This is a good movie that is anchored by two really good performances by two quality actors. It is also a very immersive experience given the setting and how the director and company go all out to make it so. There’s elements here that will go on to win awards this year. And like I said, once you’re done, you will feel as if you’ve gone on your own arduous journey up the Rockies and down the Missouri River.
Is it the type of movie I’ll stop and watch when it’s on TV? I’m not sure. For all its sprawling vistas and heart of vengeance, it is 2 hours of watching one man crawl on his belly on a snowy forest then watching him struggle to his feet to avoid capture from any of the threats around him. All so we can see him eventually reach the ultimate goal of a fight to the death with a man who has taken from him the one thing he cared for. The movie does not give any denouement once that is done. No sense of a life beyond the chase. That is because for The Revenant, all that matters is that Glass survive and catch Fitzgerald.
A “revenant” is an Old World term for any creature that rises out of its grave to haunt and attack the living. Left half-buried in the snow, Hugh Glass rises out of his grave to haunt after his prey. In fact, he’s buried and rises several times throughout the movie and each time he’s stronger and more determined to see his journey to its bloody end. Iñárritu takes everyone along for the ride to see him rise from his grave and to explain why he does what he does. It’s a harrowing journey. I just wish it hadn’t left me as cold as it did.