Hugh Glass and his son, Hawk, are fur trappers in the wilderness of the unsettled Louisiana Purchase working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company under the command of Captain Andrew Henry. The enterprize disintegrates when the group meets hostility and violence from the local Native Americans. Having to abandon their goods, the survivors begin a perilous trip back. While scouting ahead, Glass is savagely mauled by a bear and barely survives. His companions patch his wounds and try to travel with him but find it impossible. They leave Glass behind in the hands of his son and his fellow hunters Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald, to heal or be buried when he dies.
Fitzgerald, a self-centered racist of a man, kills Hawk and tricks Bridger into abandoning Glass to die in a shallow grave. They then proceed back to the fort. Glass, however, is not dead and has vengeance in mind. What follows is a harrowing tale of survival and revenge across the American wilderness.
The Short of It:
This is an intense movie, done with an artistic style and a sense of poignancy. The plot is interesting and captivating with a satisfying conclusion, carried by excellent performances by everyone involved, but none more so than Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass. It is not “fun,” and it is not packed with action. If you go into the film expecting that, then you might very well be bored. However, if you go in on the film’s terms and can handle violent imagery, it is highly entertaining. I recommend it.
The Long of It:
“The Revenant” is a dream of cinematography, with beautiful shots, artistic pacing and camera work, and all-natural lighting. That last fact alone is impressive as I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to make this film under those conditions. All those efforts were worth it. The natural lighting combines with the rest of the filmmaking to pound home the realism of the scene presented. When winter sets in, I could almost feel the chill as I watched the characters struggle through the wilderness, and marvel at the vistas present in what feels like nearly every other shot.
The story is a suitably straightforward tale to set against this backdrop. The simple but meaningful motivations of the characters keep the film focused, with few tangents and subplots. Considering the minimal nature of the story over a long two and a half hour runtime, the film risked being boring and thin, but the director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, manages to make the time count.
Iñárritu needed excellent performances to meet that challenge. Thankfully the film has spectacular casting. Leonardo DiCaprio provides another Oscar-snub-worthy performance as Glass, managing to convey every bit of his skill, determination, sadness, and rage. Tom Hardy makes a great villain as Fitzgerald who conveys the dark thoughts stirring behind his eyes with every glance, and he made me uncomfortable whenever he was on screen, whether he was stabbing someone in the gut, or just talking at a campfire.
The smaller parts are also carried ably with Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Henry struggling to maintain civility and honor in a harsh and unforgiving world, and Will Poulter as Jim Bridger, a good-hearted young man who is torn apart inside by finding himself wrapped up in Fitzgerald’s lies.
The script helps, of course, as it is tight and smooth, and the core story is interesting and satisfying. The overarching themes of revenge and man’s relationship to nature and other people are kept very intimate and personal. Despite this, the whole story takes a somewhat mythical or legendary air. The thematic purity of the tale makes it feel very classical in its drama, like a play out of ancient Greece, and though much is done to keep the story grounded, Glass’ dreams and the otherworldliness of the unspoilt wilds gives the proceedings a quality of mystical forces and the kind of subtle magical realism that comes from deep hikes in the woods. Furthermore, from occasional actions, musings and words of the characters, the story has an undercurrent of spirituality.
The film prompts meditation on a variety of concepts, such as the majesty of Nature, both its beauty and its darkness. It made me think about the harsh reality of life in the past, only around two hundred years ago, and it made me think about history of conflict between Native Americans and settlers, and really consider the reality of what that conflict meant for individuals and families.
In a broader sense, it made me consider racial relations. Fitzgerald is a very racist man and uses foul slurs for the natives and Glass’ mixed-race son. He is not condemned for his actions and words, of course, but the love Glass shows for his son and the memory of his native wife, as well as the way Glass interacts with individual natives throughout the film (so long as they aren’t attacking him), provides a counterpoint to the self-serving racism of Fitzgerald and the trickery of the French fur trappers that are also present in the film. Glass isn’t the only one, either. Bridger has an important character moment between himself and the survivor of a devastated native village that serves to counterpoint the racism of Fitzgerald by showing Bridger’s own humanity.
The film is certainly entertaining, but I would not call it a “fun” movie, or an “action” movie, though it has some intensely violent scenes and driving fights and chases. Few people will find themselves slipping it in the blu-ray player over and over again with popcorn in hand. It is a definitely serious film.
The film isn’t perfect. The director’s artistic vision, while highly important to the film, does mean that one or two shots or scenes are dragged out just a little too long, and are a tad too self-indulgent. Some aspects of the subplot following the Native American group searching for the lost daughter of the chief is a little unclear at times, though the film doesn’t strictly need to spell it out for it to make general sense. Finally, I’m not a big fan of the last shot of the film. It breaks a bit of the immersion for me, and it verges too close to the fourth wall, though I suppose it did stick with me, so maybe it worked as intended.
Conclusion and Star Rating:
This isn’t a film for everyone. It can be very violent and dark at times, and certain characters will hold some very dark and vile worldviews. However, for those who can handle it, the film is incredibly beautiful and artistic, with terrific performances and powerful themes. The more I think about “The Revenant,” the more I am sure that I loved it, even if it likely won’t be my first choice for a re-watch on a Saturday evening. I give this film a five out of five stars, or “Excellent.”