The Revenant (2015)

Posted by Joel Copling on January 7, 2016

Conceptually, "The Revenant" is pretty simple (without, mind you, being simplistic): A man is attacked by a bear and left for dead by his men. The screenplay by Mark L. Smith and director Alejandro G. Inarritu (based on part of a novel by Michael Punke) is fascinating, then, in the way it loads the scenario to the breaking point with one test after another for that man. Not only is he attacked by a bear, he is attacked twice largely because of his clever resourcefulness, and not only do his men leave him to die, but one of them cruelly disposes of his only remaining loved one. This, then, is the story that the titular label heavily implies: One man will find the other who did him the worst wrong in the world, and justice will take it from there.

Well, not exactly. It isn't justice in the legal and lawful sense of which we know today but frontier justice. The murderer will be given his due much in the same way he ended the life of the innocent boy who was a son to the man who nearly lost his own life to a random act of nature. The film might be a grueling experience, but there is also a ferocious sense of perseverance that leads to an affirmation of life and, moreover, a climactic spiritual awakening that is, thankfully, more implied than outright stated to the viewer. Adding to a sense of authenticity is the decision by Inarritu to shoot in natural light and on frequently dangerous locations. This is a pristine film on the surface of it, with a bevy of lengthy single-take set-ups that keep the viewer in the moment and on edge.

This is most apparent in two sequences in particular. The first is the opening attack on Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, quite good) and his men, who trade in animal fur, by a group of Native Americans. The sequence is brutal (a lot of arrows to the knee, as well as other joints and appendages) and as effective as it is because Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki opt to shoot a great deal of it in a single unforgiving take. It also works on multiple levels, so that we are introduced to the uneasy dynamic between Henry and his men, who include the unapologetically (and, to be fair, understandably) racist John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and the young, less experienced Jim Bridger (Will Poulter).

It also introduces us in brief spurts to the relationship between Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of Henry's fur trappers, and his doomed, part-indigenous son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) before the rules of the Old West set in with predictably tragic results. Glass, who really was a fur trapper but whose life was dramatized by Punke's novel, is the victim of that bear attack, which is yet again captured in a horrifying single-take set-up that punctuates the crunching of bones with grunts of pain and terror. His neck and vocal cords take the majority of the damage, so he can only wheeze in terror as Fitzgerald, who has opted to stay behind with Hawk and Bridger to tend to his wounds and keep him safe, tries to end his suffering but only kills Hawk in the process.

The rest of the film is as grueling as all this has been so far, as Glass quite literally crawls toward the settlement wherein Fitzgerald has reunited with Henry's men and sought shelter. Along the perilous way, Glass must heal his ragged throat (This involves a rather gruesome use of gunpowder, two metal objects to be scraped together, and spare dead grass) and regain the use of two crippled legs. It all comes out in the wash with a finale featuring a brutal and exhausting bit of climactic combat during which one can feel every bead of sweat and exhaustion that the characters are feeling. This is the unrelenting Old West in all of its inglorious vanity.

The performances are also a major contribution to the film's sense of authentic grit. DiCaprio is an actor who never skimps on the physically challenging, and it is no different in this. He is excellent here, especially as he seeks safety and vengeance. Hardy, though, is perhaps even better as a very, very bad man who is perfectly aware of his own corruption and simply bathes in it, while Poulter impresses with his reading of a character haunted by a lie told by a man he thought he trusted. "The Revenant" is a brutal study of an unforgiving period in history, so it's no wonder that the ending presents a hard choice to an altogether unexpected character and that the choice is made. This is one of the best films of 2015.

Film Information

Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass), Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald), Domhnall Gleeson (Captain Andrew Henry), Will Poulter (Bridger), Forrest Goodluck (Hawk), Arthur RedCloud (Hikuc), Grace Dove (Hugh's Wife), Paul Anderson (Anderson), Lukas Haas (Jones), Brendan Fletcher (Fryman), Krisoffer Joner (Murphy), Brad Carter (Johnnie), Melaw Nakehk'o (Powaqa).

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu and written by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith, based in part on the novel by Michael Punke.

Rated R (frontier combat/violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language, brief nudity).

156 minutes.

Released in select cities on December 25, 2015.