Alejandro Iñárritu’s drama The Revenant, set in the wilds of the early 19th-century American frontier, pits man against man and man against nature. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a trapper who, after being attacked by a bear, is left in the care of his colleague, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fed up with Glass’ slow death, Fitzgerald kills him and takes off. Except Glass doesn’t die, instead rousing himself from the grave to track Fitzgerald across the savage terrain and kill him.
The journey is grueling and immersive; in Iñárritu’s 156-minute film, you’ll feel all the cold, grime and exhaustion. And the sensitive should note the R rating for “frontier violence”: There are gruesome injuries, icky self-surgery, an in-your-face bear attack and some viscerally unpleasant meals.
The overall narrative is less successful. One aspect of the work is a pulpy adventure, as Glass crawls his way back from death to seek vengeance. But action fans will be maddened by the film’s slow pace, its painterly qualities marking more reflective time than bloody action. Iñárritu clearly has an eye toward making this epic about something, whether it’s the savagery of nature (wholly and patently evident); or the savagery of man, ranging from the macro, such as the ravaging of natural resources and the slaughter of native people, to the micro (Glass and Fitzgerald solving everything with murder). Yet, these themes range from contradictory to elusive to amateurishly presented. (There is a sign at one camp that reads “We are all savages.”)
Glass is meant to be our toggle between wild animal and thoughtful human who is stretched to extremes by circumstances. But Iñárritu gives us a hero, if only by generic default. In brief flashbacks, we learn Glass is a righteous victim, and the crimes Fitzgerald perpetrates are grotesque enough to justify Glass’ extreme retribution. That said, DiCaprio does a fine job suffering — if there was an Academy Award for wild eyes, painful grunting and shivering, he’d be a lock.
If there is a dominant character, it is truly the barely survivable natural world, and to forefront that is Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography. Lubezki, who nabbed Oscars for Gravity and Birdman, captures both frantic action, such as the first reel’s chaotic battle, and the achingly beautiful and slightly scary vastness of the unspoiled mountain West. (The movie was filmed in Alberta and Argentina.) Many of the scenes are shot early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the pale, northern winter light is almost visible. No cheery sunshine — or easy solutions — in this brutal land.