Editors note: The following review for The Revenant is being republished here because it was chosen by 20th Century Fox for use in their advertising campaign for the home release of the Academy Award winning film last year, and was lost when Examiner.com closed its doors and deleted its entire content bank from the internet. It has not been altered in any way from its original publication.
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
THE PLOT: It’s 1820-something and a rugged company of fur trappers are waylaid and slaughtered by a war party of Arikara braves looking for scalps, plunder, and the kidnapped daughter of their chief. The few survivors, under the guide of a capable frontiersman, Hugh Glass, (Leonardo DiCaprio) decide to ditch their crop of beaver pelts and hightail it out of the territory. When a violent encounter with a she-bear leaves Glass at death’s door his fate is put into the hands of three men – his half-native son Hawk, (Forrest Goodluck) a young Jim Bridger, (Will Poulter) and a ruthless Texan named John Fitzegerald. (Tom Hardy) With the Arikara still on an active hunt for the frazzled retinue, the three men must decide what to do with their incapacitated ward – a man seemingly possessed to stay alive no matter how mortal his injuries are.
THE FILM: As an aesthetic feat The Revenant is in premium company. Shot mostly outdoors and using only light sources found in nature Innaritu’s latest film project manages to remove nearly all the residue of our synthetic world. As a happy repercussion this elder world of The Revenant is – as Pope John Paul II famously said concerning Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ – as it was.
As an entertainment option, The Revenant is most assuredly not for everyone. It’s too cold, too punishing, too long in the tooth, too red in the tooth, too blunt in its storytelling. Yet to easily dismiss it is to disregard the strength and toxicity of its immersion. The Revenant is an ordeal of extraordinary discomfort. It’s also an expedition through a bygone world of extraordinary beauty and horror.
The Revenant’s landscape is grand, gorgeous, and stark. The imagery in the film the same. In one scene Hugh Glass – the real life mountain man with ostensibly more lives than Jason Voorhees – has been swaddled under a blanket of snow in a makeshift Indian shelter, and suffering from the infection setting into his wounds has fallen into a fever dream. Within he has a vision where he finds himself in a dilapidated church with fire-blackened trees growing inside its walls. His half-Pawnee son is there as well, studying a mural painted across the interior of the chapel. The art is as compelling as the burnt timber growing through the floor. The walls depict the crucifixion of Christ, but they also depict what appears to be a heathen god devouring a man whole. In The Revenant’s dreamscape Christian iconography mingles with Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son in a pulverized church seemingly built to collapse under the full weight of the natural world.
In the inner empire of The Revenant it appears that even God is forced to make compromises.
Hugh Glass is a man of two universes, and as circumstances evolve, two lives. He’s both white Christian and savage. In one of the most sublime photographic frames in The Revenant Glass shares raw buffalo offal by firelight with a Pawnee tracker. In this snapshot the white man and the native have been reduced to carrion eaters, each man roosting silently in the snow, red to the elbows.
On his journey from the grave Hugh carries a canteen that his former comrade, Jim Bridger, (yes Tarantino-philes, that Jim Bridger) has etched a spiral into using a stone. After his revival Glass catches the reflection of a meteor shower in the Yellowstone river, a meteor that splashes down 100 miles ahead into the same water, directly in front of his adversary and sole reason for keeping alive, John Fitzgerald. The two symbols, (like the two men) are as striking as they are emblematic. Both are presented in this film set in the climes of 1820’s frontier America as trademarks of a latter-day – namely, ours. The coiled line and the falling star standout because they’re supposed to, and it’s not difficult identifying them as misfits.
The spiral is an ancient Celtic rune of rebirth, while according to Pawnee legend, a warrior named Pahokatawa was devoured by wild animals, and returned to Earth in a meteor shower – yet another harbinger of reincarnation. Hugh Glass, nearly a corpse at every moment in the film, is the revenant – a warrior eaten alive by a bear and made animate again. His ordeal with the grizzly – and film aficionados I promise you, you’ve never seen anything as traumatic or as hypnagogic as the bear mauling in this film – has seemingly sent him reeling into the underworld.
Resurrection, as presented in this film, is an excruciating, lengthy process of tribulation and massacre, where the only thing that separates the victors and the failures appears to be the ability to summon the strength to keep breathing. Inhale. Exhale. The respiratory piston drumming through the soundtrack of The Revenant’s advertising, (watch this trailer for auditory confirmation) and one Glass’s native son, Hawk, drums into his father as he lies virtually lifeless with his throat ripped open: “Just breathe father… Breathe…” Alejandro even goes so far as to cram his camera into Hugh Glass’s frantic exhalation in some sequences. Fogging up the lens but always reminding us that to breathe from within the grip of brutal extremity, is to exist.
As far as the nuts and bolts of cinema are concerned The Revenant is achingly well made. The craftwork here is state of the art. With a plot carrying a trim, less dimensional scope than most of this season’s award bait offerings, (this is a revenge film, plated and served stone cold) The Revenant instead is an artisan’s examination of malnutrition – whether it be for sustenance or civility – in one of the harshest environments in American history, presented as a full-course visual feast.
The film shares kinship with David Morrell’s First Blood, and contemporary viewers may associate The Revenant with more modern pageants of attrition. Films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ and Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. As such The Revenant is certainly more rite of passage than it is motion picture.
The acting – especially from Tom Hardy, playing the perpetually grousing, diligently despicable, half-scalped-Texan-turned-fur-trapper John Fitzgerald – is exceptional. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is about as exhaustive and nervy as it gets. One could chalk this up to habitat and committing oneself to a strenuous shooting schedule for a film with no lighting crew, but the performance is there. It is raw and tragic and primitive – whether willed into existence or simply brought about naturally as the byproduct of a difficult film production set so deep in the Canadian Rockies, Leo crushes it as Hugh Glass.
Domhnall Gleeson sticks out among this brawny band – but his character is designed to. Andrew Henry may lead the corps, but he doesn’t truly belong to this company of roughnecks and fur traders. Major Henry is pretty much a soldier in name only, more so he exemplifies the fresh-faced clerical type that will ultimately end up replacing the wild American mountain man once the territory is properly conquered.
In the end, Hardy’s Fitzgerald has done DiCaprio’s Glass some serious wrong. Wrong strong enough to drive the man out of his bed in the ground and across 300 miles of frozen forests, rivers, and mountains just to claim bloody restitution. But Fitzegerald has his reasons for doing what he ultimately did. As does Hugh Glass as he relentlessly lurches toward confrontation. Every character in the film is an agent of precarious circumstance and what basically boils down to bad juju. Their reactions when faced with their own mortality might not be statutory, but they are legitimate. They do carry consequences.
THE VERDICT: As a piece of cinema The Revenant is pure, elemental escapism, and as harrowing an experience as you’ll find anywhere. The film is both lurid, and preternaturally alluring. As for me, I left the movie house yearning for a shot of bourbon and a roaring fire – just to settle my nerves and shake the winter out of my bones. A compliment.