Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Mark L. Smith & Alejandro González Iñárritu (screenplay), Michael Punke (novel)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter
Leonardo DiCaprio endures such an excruciating array of torments in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant that by the time he guts a dead horse, strips naked and climbs inside it to keep warm for the night, I couldn’t help but laugh in pity. The movie, set in an unspecified area of the American frontier in the 1820s, is a series of grueling endurance tests for his character Hugh Glass, and its payoff is a brawl that paints the snow red and fills it with chunks of skin and bone.
The Revenant is a predictable, hyper-masculine revenge story told with a brutal beauty. Glass is helping navigate a group of fellow frontiersman after their hunting expedition, though the movie wastes no time before pummeling the group with violence. As they rest in the woods, a Native American tribe surrounds them and attacks; arrows pierce throats, bullets rip through bodies. Much of the scene unfolds in a single take. The camera follows a person, usually until they die, and then picks another. Unlike Birdman, Iñárritu’s underwhelming showbiz satire that was filmed as if it were all a single shot, The Revenant’s visual design enhances the movie’s other elements instead of overwhelming them.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t often overwhelming. Just when Glass thinks he’s found temporary safety after his group escapes from combat in a boat, he’s nearly mauled to death by a bear while walking alone in the woods. Again the carnage plays out in a single take, at an almost unbearably close distance. The bear’s effortless swipes take chunks out of Glass as he squirms to get away. When he finally stabs it enough times in the neck, the two roll down a hill and the dead bear lands on top of him. (Like I said, laugh in pity.)
After Glass’ companions find him pinned under the animal, they quickly sew up his wounds and put him on a make-shift gurney to carry him along with them. This act of kindness, just like the few others scattered throughout, is shocking in the context of the rest of this unrelentingly bleak movie. Glass’ situation seems hopeless, but his men plan to allow him to die on his own terms. Well, all of them except one.
John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is the movie’s bitter, needlessly aggressive villain. When the group’s leader (Domnhall Gleeson) offers to pay people to stay behind with Glass, he volunteers, only to murder Glass’ son in front of him and convince the other person to help bury him alive so they can rejoin the group and get paid. Glass crawls out of that hole with murderous, determined eyes.
As he slowly makes his way through the wintry mountains, forests and plains toward revenge, he begins to regain more and more control of his body. Some of the movie’s most effective moments involve Glass avoiding violence out of necessity, or deciding out of desperation that he has to risk death by approaching strangers. The Revenant’s most prominent act of kindness involves a Pawnee Native American throwing raw meat at Glass before patching up his wounds and making him a shelter. Glass later finds the man hanging in the woods with a sign labeling him a savage.
The Revenant is unsparing in almost every aspect imaginable, sometimes to an annoyingly self-serious degree. However, Iñárritu holds nothing back in illustrating the hypocrisy and racism of the white male characters. Though much of the movie follows Glass by himself in the wilderness, the story skips to a variety of groups in the area, including the Native Americans. In a crucial scene, a French man attempts to confront a Sioux tribe member about trying to sell them animal hides that are stolen. The Sioux man replies that everything — land, animals, people — was stolen from his people.
That man is searching for his kidnapped daughter, a woman named Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) who Glass finds held prisoner by the same French men who accused her father of trading stolen goods. Glass rescues Powaqa while she’s being raped. He gives her a knife and she castrates the man responsible. It’s one of few moments of brutality that happens off camera; the man can briefly be seen falling to his knees with blood dripping down his thighs. Powaqa’s rape, however, is not only shown, but her face appears in close-up while the assault is visible in the background.
Because The Revenant contains virtually no female characters, this short scene of gendered violence against Powaqa is unfortunately the most prominent representation of women in the film. The other would be Glass’ deceased wife, a Native American woman who is the mother of his son. She appears in flashbacks throughout the movie, and in many of them she’s just standing there while a voiceover plays, or she’s already dead or being killed.
Though the movie’s attitude toward women is tired, as a whole The Revenant is a thrilling revenge film. Iñárritu, working with the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, creates wondrous images; the movie is overflowing with shots of pristine wilderness and world-weary faces. The action violence is choreographed with a relentless momentum- the longer takes during the combat scenes work well here precisely because Iñárritu knows when to cut them. The quieter moments, like a shot looking up at the night sky while embers drift up, or extended close-ups of Glass’ bright blue-green eyes accentuated by his pale, determined face- are just as breathtaking.
Though The Revenant’s grueling production history is becoming a kind of marketing campaign to finally get DiCaprio an Oscar, here his movie star image becomes a means for telling a much broader, more resonant story about violence on the American frontier. His quest for revenge is just one story in a beautiful land besieged by hopelessly violent men.