The fabled grizzly bear mauling of Hugh Glass comes early in The Revenant, and it is a stunning work in gruesomeness to behold. All belabored dread and immense claws, Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki craft the most grueling steadicam shot ever concocted. I am still unsure of how they pulled off half the special effects for Leonardo DiCaprio to be slowly and methodically sliced of his fleshy humanity, but this ballet of brutality is just one of the many highpoints in Iñárritu’s wholly unique Western.
Indeed, it’s very safe to say that there has never been a Western quite like The Revenant. Despite being a familiar tale of survival and revenge, the very mythic elements of its purported genre are subdued for a different type of iconography. The two visualists whose collaboration gave us last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman, reimagine the conceit of the American West into something that’s foreboding and primordial. Even the film’s earliest shots of a band of unhappy fur trappers traversing a wintry creek is akin to witnessing the exploration of a distant planet, because this is in fact a New World—one untouched by civilization, logic, or even our petty grievances.
The greatest irony and compliment that can be given is that The Revenant is a passion play where man’s evils and identities are constantly dwarfed by a the expansive infinity of a natural world, be it bears, avalanches, or the icy rush of doom that lingers from the title card frame.
In these listless shots of sprawling deadwood, audiences will find a grisly piece of deviltry that must meet retribution. After the aforementioned bear attack in 1823, a bleeding and immobile Hugh Glass was left to die alone in the snow-covered trees. Despite Glass (DiCaprio) having scouted what appears to be a six-month fur trapping expedition into the wilderness, the company is already aggrieved due to an equally spectacular opening sequence where Arikara Warriors attack and kill most of their companions. The few who do remain tend to listen to mountainman and malcontent John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) instead of their young, green Gen. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).
Fitzgerald lost most of his furs to the Native American attackers, and having already survived a more personal Indian assault in his youth—the top of his head is a patchwork of mangled skin and the result of a premature scalping—he is left with nothing but disdain for Glass and his half-Pawnee son (Forrest Goodluck). Thus when the ever trusting Henry offers $300 to the men who would stay behind and care for Glass until he succumbs to his wounds, Fitzgerald is the first to leap at the money alongside the naïve boy Jim Bridger (Will Poulter).
As soon as Henry is gone, Fitzgerald is burying Hugh Glass alive and convincing young Bridger to leave Glass to die in the dirt… only he doesn’t. Step by agonizingly crawled step, Hugh Glass will nurse himself back to health and go on a weeks-long odyssey in the snow with no weapons or food. He will make it back to the fort and have his bloody vengeance on the men who left him in the cold.
There is an obvious story of vengeance and some form of redemption underpinning Glass’ quest, but the film itself is less concerned about such basic motivations. Alejandro González Iñárritu is a notoriously cagey storyteller, and with The Revenant he would seek to present a journey where the experience of survival is the true imperative for telling it. This is a violent, frigid, and entirely overwhelming moviegoing experience that looks every bit as hellacious as the film’s production is rumored to have been.
But that is also its beauty. Running well over two and a half hours, this picture is largely silent for swaths of the middle where we must endure every choice Glass makes to remain free of an Arikara Indians’ blades, as well as the relentless and unforgiving elements that beckon him toward oblivion.
At times, the film is certainly indulgent and likely did not need to run so close to three hours, but it is also disarmingly mesmerizing with its embrace of rugged individualism. The untarnished qualities of a landscape dotted only by wolves chomping at wounded bison, and frostbitten fires begotten by solitary silhouettes, has an ethereal quality more pressing than even Glass’ bloodlust.
And in spite of envisioning the American West through the very modern gaze of digital photography, there is a width and depth of field by Lubezki’s lenses that maintain its vastness. Indeed, the way in which the film is shot entirely in natural light creates a strangely otherworldly glow in its alien settings that are so far removed from man.
As the man who must withstand them, DiCaprio is convincingly desperate. His frame might never fully pass as an authentic mountaineer or survivalist, but he fully commits to a role that sees him half-starved and bloodshot. He carries the entire film in nigh silence, achieving depth in his stoicism. The pain encrusting his ragged beard is palpable, and any role that requires a man to eat a live, raw fish with his bare hands is worthy of Oscar consideration. However, there have been other performances he was far more deserving of winning for in the past.
The true standout among the cast is Tom Hardy. A sweltering creation of bravado, ignorance, and bigoted anger, it takes almost the whole running time to see the cowardice that such bluster hides. Fitzgerald is every inch the pioneer the film purports and is in fact more a piece of his world than Glass is since he runs on animalistic instincts like fear and a different kind of survival—an ugly pathetic type that is more dangerous than any bear.
The rest of the cast is also unsurprisingly strong. But this is a film more about an experience than an ensemble or their emotions. And it is on those terms that The Revenant should be viewed. This is an exhausting and beleaguering sit that perhaps intentionally overstays its welcome to make sure you feel what it’s like being dragged through the slush. Its appeal for awards voters will be inescapable, yet its commercial viability will be a curiosity to witness.
Nevertheless, for those brave enough to tread lightly into this cinematic snowstorm, the ordeal is unforgettable.
This review was first published on Dec. 4, 2015.