In the 1820s, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) act as guides for fur trappers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). After the party is attacked by hostile Ree, tensions rise between Glass and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a trapper with strong anti-Indian sentiments. Not long thereafter, Glass is attacked by a bear and seriously wounded. Though Henry leaves Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) to watch over him, they instead leave him for dead. However, the iron-willed Glass isn’t vanquished yet and swears revenge. To get it, he will have to travel through territory patrolled by rival French trappers and a Ree chief who will kill anyone in order to find his missing daughter.
Thanks to an unfounded rumor, many will only know The Revenant as “that movie where Leo was raped by a bear.” There is no bear-rape here, but there is plenty else that makes The Revenant stand out. Alejandro Inarritu (of Birdman and Babel fame) directed this adaptation of Michael Punke’s novel, itself loosely based on a true story. In the spirit of Cormac McCarthy’s Western novels, it’s a harsh, violent film yet one that pairs its gore with an elegiac view of nature, here in the form of Emmanuel Lubezki’s sharp cinematography. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s haunting score is an appropriate complement.
Those who have a frame of reference beyond the bear incident may also know of The Revenant as the film that finally netted DiCaprio an Academy Award. That selection rightly raised some eyebrows (this is not DiCaprio’s best work and Matt Damon or Michael B. Jordan were just as worthy), but it is not without merit. While he doesn’t have much dialogue, DiCaprio underwent a Christian Bale-like physical transformation and ably conveyed Glass’s determination and sense of anguish. Hardy favorably called to mind Josh Brolin’s villainous turn in True Grit while Poulter plays Bridger (a future frontier legend) as both naïve and capable. Gleeson, on the other hand, seems miscast: his father, Brendan, would have exerted the experience and authority needed for this role.
Despite the talent involved on both sides of the camera, there is no ignoring the idea that The Revenant simply doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The plot is that of a simple revenge tale, the notion that the frontier was an uncompromising land of moral grayness has been explored before, and even the characters’ deeper motivations – grieving over lost family – seem perfunctory here. Given Babel’s nonlinear approach and Birdman’s all-around strangeness, The Revenant’s straightforwardness will strike some as a waste of creative capability.
It may not be novel and it certainly isn’t for the squeamish, but The Revenant does provide enough stylistic flair and acting oomph to justify its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. This is the kind of movie that you can appreciate while still wishing that it offered more.