The marketing materials for “The Revenant” have pitched the movie as a Canadian-wilderness revenge drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who gets smashed around by a gigantic bear. And while that’s all entirely accurate, “The Revenant” aspires to be something more – a haunting glimpse of alien northern landscapes untouched by human hands, within which a lone survivor must come to terms with both his own mortality and his own insignificance. In the capable hands of director Alejandro Iñárritu – who helmed last year’s Best Picture winner, “Birdman” – “The Revenant” successfully delivers on its ambitions, even if its concessions to contemporary audiences are at times too unsubtle.
Inspired by a historical novel written by a then-associate at a D.C. law firm, “The Revenant” plays like a mashup of “Rambo” and a Ken Burns documentary. After fleeing an attack by Native Americans, fur trapper Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is caught between a grizzly bear and her cubs and severely mauled. Left for dead by his companions (and forced to witness the murder of his son by greedy trapper Fitzgerald), Glass drags himself across an icy northern landscape…setting off on a quest to both heal his grievous wounds and obtain revenge.
Many movies have bland and forgettable outdoor settings: “The Revenant” is not one of those films. Director Iñárritu manages to capture both the breathtaking beauty and stomach-churning grunginess of the wilderness, creating a far richer setting than anything built on a greenscreen. Tonally, this is not a movie about the incandescence of the human spirit and the will to survive; instead, it’s a story of human fragility and smallness within a grand, vast, untamed wild. As has been widely publicized, DiCaprio delivers a demanding, highly draining lead performance that (in a field lacking any other major contenders) ought to win him an Oscar…yet despite the critical buzz, this is not DiCaprio’s movie so much as it is Iñárritu’s.
The closest analogue to “The Revenant” is probably Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 Viking drama “Valhalla Rising.” Yet while “Valhalla” wallowed in its own morose atmosphere, grinding its viewers down into the muck and filth of human pitilessness, “Revenant” allows itself to acknowledge the breathtaking glory of its setting. The beauty of icy mountains, snowy trees, and swift-flowing rivers may be a cold and brittle beauty, but it is still beauty.
Unfortunately, where the film’s narrative is concerned, “Revenant” appears to have been caught between mass box-office appeal and artistic majesty. The soul of “Revenant” is restrained and contemplative, and Iñárritu’s artistry deserves better than the tired “revenge at all costs” element that appears late in the game. Accordingly, the third act’s descent into visceral hand-to-hand combat feels like it belongs in a completely different film. (The real-life Hugh Glass apparently forgave the men who abandoned him – a stranger-than-fiction twist that would’ve made for a far richer and more thematically satisfying onscreen conclusion.)
That being said, “Revenant” is so well filmed, and so utterly engrossing across its lengthy runtime, that its momentary forays into lazy storytelling may be largely forgiven. This movie is so mesmerizingly composed that it might score a solid 7/10 without any human actors at all (the immersive sound editing is equally exceptional).
Of note: this is an extraordinarily violent film, but of a far different sort than “The Hateful Eight” or most other action movies. Here, the graphic content onscreen is purely of the “nature, red in tooth and claw” variety – to wit, when Glass is mauled by a bear, there’s a lot of gore. “The Revenant” isn’t for the squeamish, but its violence (I hesitate even to use that term, because it connotes a directorial choice rather than an accurate depiction of reality) never becomes morally problematic.
In short, “The Revenant” isn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year, but it is undoubtedly the best-crafted. While admirers of Iñárritu’s work may credibly lament that, in the process of making a blockbuster more accessible than “Birdman,” a certain intangible magic has been lost, “Revenant” is still a fine adventure drama and an immensely satisfying experience.
Though weighed down by lapses into genre convention, “The Revenant” is both brutal and beautiful.