BY JERRY DEAN ROBERTS | February 2, 2016
There are people in my day-to-day life whose day is ruined if they can’t get to Starbucks. For them, I highly recommend The Revenant, a brutal 19th century wilderness adventure in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a fur tracker who, in the course of this film, is twice mauled by a bear; crawls out of his own grave; eats raw buffalo liver; cauterizes a hole in his throat; and spends one very wintery night sleeping nude inside the carcass of a dead horse. Watch this movie and then tell me how hard it was to go without your Pumpkin Spiced Latte.
Needless to say, The Revenant is the kind of movie that makes you feel ashamed of your first-world problems. Yet, we come away happy for the dividing line between what is up there and what is down here, i.e. none of us will ever get so hungry that we will resort to eating a live fish that we just pulled out of the river. We go to the movies and experience things while always being aware of the dividing line between our creature comforts and the horror that is happening on screen. One of the greatest assets to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is that it is such an immersive experience that we often forget that dividing line. When it’s over you find yourself thanking your lucky stars that you live in the age of seat warmers.
The story takes place in 1823, in the untamed northern end of the Louisiana Purchase that will someday be The Dakotas. This is blizzard country in every sense of the word. We meet up with a group of some 100 fur trappers who are on an expedition headed by a by-the-book leader called Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson). Out of nowhere comes a scene that reminded me greatly of the opening passage of Saving Private Ryan. In the snowy wilderness they are ambushed by Native Americans whose attack is less like a well-organized enemy and more like a part of nature itself. There is blood, gore, death and chaos that comes from arrows that whisk through the air with such ferocity that no one can see where they are coming from.
When the smoke has cleared only a handful of men remain and as they head up-river, they find that the enemy is still hunting them. Henry wants the remaining party to return to camp, but hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, in a great performance) disagrees. He’s a survivalist in every sense of the word, a man who thinks of his own needs first. He doesn’t like Henry and he especially doesn’t like Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) the party’s tracker who has brought along Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) his half-Indian son. The character definitions planted in this scene alone are as bitter as the environment that surrounds them.
Away from the rest of the group for a short time Glass is attacked by a female Grizzly bear in a scene that has to rank with one of the most brutal moments that I can ever remember on screen. I’m not just saying that, this so scene intense that your heart is pounding the whole time. By some miracle from above, Glass survives this attack with his back scratched up, his throat torn open and several bones broken.
What happens after that, I won’t go into except to say there’s some disagreement between the men over what to do with Glass, whose immobile condition is slowing them down. They’re already dealing with a harsh winter that is threatening to turn worse, to say nothing of the Native Americans that are already on their trail. That’s when the story breaks in two and the bulk of the movie involves Glass’ solo attempt to make it back to civilization with a body so broken that he spends much of the time dragging himself along while grimacing in pain.
There has been a lot written recently about DiCaprio’s chances as winning an Oscar and I certainly hope that it isn’t written off as hype. I have, for a long time, felt an inability to separate his work from his movie star reality – it keeps me from getting involved in the character he’s playing. Yet, here he is completely committed to every single moment. Because of the throat wound, he doesn’t speak much and when he does it is a quiet whisper. Most of his performance is silent but also extremely physical and extremely grueling; DiCaprio is so committed to this role that you feel his fortitude. You can feel his bones twist and bend compels himself to move hundreds of miles across forbidding wilderness.
In most of these prestige pictures, you can practically smell the food from the craft services table just off screen but that’s not the case here; the environments almost seem Biblical. The sun rarely shines, the ground is always covered in a thick blanket of snow and the forests are so forbidding that we are always aware that something nasty resides just beyond the tree line. This is the first movie I’ve ever seen with a lot of snow where I was actually happy to see a campfire. Plus, there’s always a motivation. Glass has a reason to survive. Fitzgerald has a reason for self-preservation. The Native Americans have a reason to attack (their far from the beatific grace of Dances With Wolves). Even the bear attacks because she is protecting her cubs.
This is an extremely intense movie, but also a very engrossing one. Everything has a purpose and nothing that happens feels as if it is added for effect. The story is based on logic. If there is one element of the film that bothers me it is probably the closing moments. Without giving too much away, I think I would have preferred something a little more practical. I’m not asking for Irraritu to give me an exclamation point, but I would have preferred less of a question mark. I feel that the image at the end of the film doesn’t equal to the brutality of what I’ve been asked to sit through for the past 2 and a half hours. It didn’t ruin the film for me, but the clincher should have been more powerful. Still this is one of the most intense films you’ll see all year. It’s brilliant, it’s involving and – boy howdy – is it brutal.