The Revenant is one of those movies where the trailer tells you everything you need to know about the fairly simple plot while still leaving you woefully unprepared for the actual film. Spoilers below, I suppose, though the plot is really not what moves any of this.
Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) have been hired by Captain Hot Ginger (Domhnall Gleeson) to guide a party of trappers from a local fort. After escaping a raid by a party of angry Arikara tribesman, the men who remain try to make it overland back to the fort. Not long into the journey, Glass gets mauled by a mother grizzly bear in the first of many downright harrowing scenes. He survives somehow, but Captain Hot Ginger is forced to leave him behind in the care of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter) after the promise of monetary compensation. Fitzgerald attempts to kill Glass, murders Hawk when he tries to intercede, and throws Glass into a shallow grave–which Glass promptly crawls back out of. After that, it’s Glass surviving against increasingly squirm-inducing situations, moved by the promise of revenge.
That’s really it. There’s a parallel plot thread not revealed by the trailer, in which we find out the Arikara are pursuing Glass’s party because one of the men’s daughter, Powaqa, has been abducted by a group of white men. It turns out that she was actually taken by a group of French trappers, but one can see how the groups of incredibly racist, murderous white trappers start to blend together after a while. Glass ultimately saves Powaqa while on the path of vengeance, but this doesn’t provide him with any sort of redemption or peace. If you want either of those things, this is not the film for you.
This isn’t a movie about the plot, though. It’s not even really a character study as such; Glass and Fitzgerald expand a little upon their pasts, but it’s a bare framework that supports their chase across the wild and a provision of basic motivation, not a deep dive into what makes either man tick. This is all about watching a man struggle and survive against impossible odds, and then…
I still don’t know how I feel about this movie, to be honest. I came out of it feeling like a small piece of my soul had died, but not in the Michael Bay sort of way. The same way after I finished watching There Will Be Blood I needed a hug from one of my cats and a large amaretto sour.
The Revenant is simultaneously sublimely beautiful and viscerally repulsive. When dirty, bleeding men aren’t trying to murder each other on screen, it could be a tourism brochure for Alberta, Canada, showcasing breathtaking natural landscapes. We get sweeping mountains and pristine snowscapes in wide and continuous shots, marred only by one man in complete isolation struggling through them. The absolute savagery with which those landscapes attempt to murder Glass is only surpassed by the brutality of the humans trying to kill each other. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has made certain that there is nothing artful or beautiful about the violence and blood; he’s put as much work into the realism of that as the costume designer did for the accuracy of the clothing and Loren Yellowbird Sr, the Arikara tribe member who consulted for the film, put into the accuracy of the spoken Pawnee and Arikara. There is nothing glamorous about watching Glass and Fitzgerald clash with hunting knife versus hatchet; violence and survival are both depicted as uncompromisingly ugly. And if there’s any kind of relief from the horror of survival, it’s in the existence of family and the kindness of strangers, which with one exception are swiftly and wrenchingly torn away.
The sound design is fantastic and often focuses on highlighting the sound of nature, whether it’s the distinct sound of clumps of snow falling through tree branches moving water. The score is mostly low strings, sound like wind, or drums that blend in with what is happening on screen. During some of the most uncompromising scenes there’s nothing but the sound of harsh breathing; maybe it’s because in the real world we don’t get a soundtrack when mother nature or our fellow man tries to kill us.
The acting is fabulous. I don’t know what well of blood and energy Leonardo DiCaprio keeps digging in to, but despite large stretches in the middle of the film being nearly silent except for his ragged breathing, he never stops communicating forcefully just how much it sucks to be Hugh Glass. Tom Hardy makes a disturbingly banal villain motivated entirely by self interest and happy to show the audience just how he talks himself into nearly everything. Forrest Goodluck succeeds, with very few lines and a lot of emotion, in showing the complex relationship between a mixed boy and his white father and how deeply important the two are to each other.
The film is over two and a half hours long and doesn’t drag. Rather, scenes go on far longer than you would wish because Iñárritu doesn’t have any mercy for his audience. The scene in which Glass gets mauled by the grizzly bear felt like it was approximately 45 minutes long, not because it was bad or boring, but because there is only so much Leonardo DiCaprio getting shaken like a bloody ragdoll a body can handle.
I’m not sorry I saw The Revenant, but I can’t think of any circumstances under which I’d watch it again. The fact that this movie made me use “tauntaun” as a verb in my notes is not something I think I’ll ever forgive it for. But for the love of god, please give Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar before someone gets hurt.