The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as "legendary frontiersman" Hugh Glass, opens Friday at select area theaters. It is two-and-a-half hours of grandeur and gore, and thanks to director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and director Alejandro G. Innaritu, respectively, it is at once magnificent to behold and confusing to think about.
What it boils down to is a revenge narrative as rudimentary as it gets. Glass is left for dead — indeed, is buried alive — after a bear attack, one of the most brutal and breathtaking scenes all year. He crawls out of his shallow grave, snot and saliva spewing everywhere, and traverses the pitiless wintry landscape to pay back the man who did it to him.
That Glass' adversary John FitzGerald (Tom Hardy) kills Glass' son while he is incapacitated was at first the chief plot point addressed in The Revenant trailers. In recent summaries, that fact has been omitted, likely because it comes at about the one-hour mark and might be interpreted as a spoiler. Nonetheless, it is the engine that drives Glass onward, all physical limitations — broken leg, tattered back, bloody neck that must be cauterized with gun powder — notwithstanding.
So what separates The Revenant from your garden variety Steven Segal vengeance-centric production? Basically: Oscar ambition, inherent in (or concomitant with) an A-list cast, an extravagant run-time and a commitment to verisimilitude in the production design. The script itself, written by Inarritu and Mark Smith (he of the Oscarless Vacancy and Vacancy 2), doesn't do much from line to line. In the rearview, DiCaprio's frankly tiresome grunting dominates the scripted dia- and mono-logue.
But it looks amazing. Cinematographer Lubezki's resume is composed of many of the recent titles you'd associate with innovative, or at least independently impressive, camera work: Children of Men and Gravity (both with director Alfonso Cuaron); Tree of Life and The New World (with director Terrence Malick); and last year's Academy Award-winning Birdman (with Inarritu).
In The Revenant, Lubezki captures, in all-natural lighting, the majesty and ferocity of the American West in the early 19th century. It was filmed with no shortage of budgeting woe in remote quadrants of Canada and Argentina. Lubezki is also master of the long take. Birdman, you may recall, retained the illusion of a single shot well into its second act. Children of Men contains what is considered one of the best long-shot sequences of all time. The bear mauling scene mentioned above, likewise, is presented in one riveting take. And it comes on the heels of the film's opening battle sequence, a harrowing confrontation between fur trappers and Ree Indians in which arrows whiz across the screen and through at least one unsuspecting face. The film's R-rating for "strong frontier combat" is thus promptly justified.
The movie is not all combat, though. Inarritu leapfrogs among various groups, situated upon this hostile geography: Glass himself, FitzGerald and the young Bridger (Will Poulter), who debate the morality of their abandonment; the American trappers; a debaucherous French contingent; and the party of Ree Indians, who are hunting, as it turns out, unknown captors who took the chieftan's daughter.
So what is Inarritu saying here, exactly? That everyone is reduced to the most fundamental character types (predator, prey) among these forests and frontiers primeval? In his earlier movies (Babel, 21 Grams), Inarritu was known for working in a non-linear narrative mode, a mode for which Crash remains most widely recognizable. Multiple characters. Multiple storylines. Deep, abiding, often revelatory connections.
But what connects The Revenant's miserable bands? It seems merely to be violence — it is visited upon all of them, flagrantly so — and perhaps the idea that revenge is not only sweet but vital, and necessary, and (in more ways than one) the law of the land.
(Note: The Academy might finally give Leo the Oscar for Best Actor —his Hugh Glass portrayal is gritty and methody, to be sure — but Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl has our vote, at least for now.)