After The Revenant ended, I felt like I never again needed to see, talk to, or think about another man. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s frontier epic puts us very much in the company of men — and men who will stab you in the back much more literally than Aaron Eckhart’s manipulative asshole from the movie of that name, another film that made me feel like I was done with my entire gender for a while.
Like his last film, the acclaimed Birdman, Iñárritu’s Revenant is a showpiece for a veteran actor who still has some ass to kick — but artfully. This time it’s the 41-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, who undergoes a litany of travails that leave him an almost Terminator-like machine, his mangled skin hanging from his body as his apparently titanium skeleton heaves its way onward.
His adversary is played by Tom Hardy, the Mad Max: Fury Road star who’s developing something of a specialty of playing desperate survivors in an unforgiving world. Hardy’s Revenant character is much more loquacious than Max, though: here, he plays a fur trader who’s endured the loss of a large portion of his scalp but kept his dark heart.
The Revenant is adapted from a 2002 Michael Punke novel that was inspired by the true story of Hugh Glass, a Wyoming frontiersman at the dawn of the 19th century who survived a grueling overland trek after being attacked by a bear and left for dead. The details of Glass’s odyssey include some grisly episodes that didn’t make it to the screen — Glass let maggots eat the dead flesh on his mauled back, then had a bearskin sewed onto him to cover the open wounds — but Iñárritu and co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith still have plenty to work with, especially since they want to leave time for their protagonist’s revenge quest.
No, not revenge on the bear — revenge on the guy who left him for dead, afflicting additional grievous harm in the process. Following Glass along his journey, we’re shown the cold contours of the relationships among the area’s Native inhabitants and the greed-fueled European explorers. It’s disappointing to realize that the film’s exploration of its Native characters won’t be nearly as probing as its exploration of the bloody hair hanging in DiCaprio’s face; Glass has had a child with a Pawnee woman, but The Revenant doesn’t have time for Dances–With–Wolves-style moral complexities. The fact that Glass is more empathetic than his peers merely serves to signal that he’s the sympathetic character here, so we know who to root for when the knives come out.
Come out they do, to harrowing effect. Ultimately, The Revenant is an adventure film, and Iñárritu is brutally effective at his chosen task. From an opening battle scene to the bear attack to the rescue of a captured woman, The Revenant‘s set pieces are astonishing and engrossing; Iñárritu has complete mastery of condensed visual storytelling, and technical facility to match.
With cinematography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki — a frequent collaborator of Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuaron, and Terrence Malick — The Revenant presents a glorious vision of colonial-era Wyoming; the landscape, which provides ample resources and kills far less often than its inhabitants do, is in some ways the most sympathetic character here. The film was shot entirely using natural light, and reportedly in the actual sequence of its onscreen action, in Canada — until, ominously, Canada’s weather got too warm and the production had to decamp to the tip of South America.
As with Birdman, the technical virtuosity on display here helps distract from characters who aren’t especially compelling in and of themselves; The Revenant tries to have its cake and eat it too with a lead character who’s sympathetic but is also obsessed with revenge. Especially in this colonial context, Glass would really have worked best as an antihero, but Iñárritu and Smith instead decide to turn this into a good-guy-vs-bad-guy scenario.
There’s a moment when Pawnee are watching the two white guys struggle, and we suspect there’s something about to be said regarding the tragic hubris of the colonial project — but then, the Natives take sides. Who has two frostbitten thumbs and is still the King of the World? Yep, this guy.