Note to movie pussies: The Revenant is not for you. Life put the screws to Hugh Glass, the real-life tracker and fur trapper played to the hilt and beyond by Leonardo DiCaprio. And director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a groundbreaker from Amores Perros to Birdman, damn near tortures his cast and his audience in telling the story of Glass’ revenge against the varmints, headed by John Fitzgerald (a wicked-nasty Tom Hardy), who done him wrong. Set in the untamed West of 1823, it’s one brutal, badass epic. But hang on for its unforgiving 156 minutes and you get to experience the power of cinema unleashed. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki — a true artist of light and shadow — shot on locations in Canada and Argentina. The visionary result is so relentlessly raw you can see the breath of the freezing actors, some of whom referred to the filming as a living hell.
Watching the movie, you feel their pain. In loosely adapting Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith spare nothing in immersing us in the savagery of Glass’ narrative. Before we can even get our bearings, Glass and his expedition, led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), are attacked, arrow to the jugular, by Arikara Indians. Casualties are great, though Glass strives to protect his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). In a style reminiscent of Terrence Malick, Glass hallucinates about his dead wife. But the scenes feel more arty than artful. We’re relieved when Glass heads into the forest and a scene that will surely blow you away.
I’m talking about the bear, a mama grizzly who lays into Glass like a demon possessed. Early on, The Drudge Report mistakenly implied that DiCaprio’s character was raped by the bear. Everything but. Mama is just defending her cubs. But when she flips Glass over on his back, you can hear his bones crack. And then she comes back for more. When she claws at his face, Glass looks like something Freddy Krueger left for dead. The sequence is spectacular in every sense of the word. OK, the bear is a product of an expert visual-effects team. But not for a second will you doubt you’re seeing the real thing. This is one for the time capsule.
And the wonders rarely cease. Though Glass resembles a hacked side of beef, Henry instructs Fitzgerald and young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) to stay by his side, if only to provide a proper burial. Fitzgerald’s mercenary reaction can be summed up in two words: Fuck that.
No one does villainy laced with traces of humanity like Hardy. Pleased to bury Glass alive, Fitzgerald heads off to line his pockets. But Glass won’t stay buried. He drags his carcass across mountains, rivers and rapids to exact retribution for the evil done to him.
That’s the movie. And a visceral punch in the gut it is. You could gripe about the excess of carnage and lack of philosophical substance. But surviving nature is Iñárritu’s subject, and he delivers with magisterial brilliance. As does the haunting score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner.
And then there’s DiCaprio. Hidden behind a grotty beard, his words mostly reduced to grunts, he nonetheless provides a portrait of a man in full. It’s a virtuoso performance, thrilling in its brute force and silent eloquence. Nominated by the Academy for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond and The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio is favored to win this time. But that’s not the point. His talent is. The Revenant shows DiCaprio stretching his acting muscles, testing himself, eager for challenge. That you do not want to miss.