A lot of buzz surrounds Leonardo DiCaprio, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and the multiple Academy Award nominations for “The Revenant.” If you’re looking to bone up on Sunday’s coveted awards telecast, be advised: this one requires a strong stomach and hard work to stay with it. It’s a frigid depiction of brutality, survival and revenge with an underdeveloped vague narrative.
The dreamlike pre-title opening gives us uncertain glimpses of a horrific Indian camp massacre. We then join a hard group of fur traders busily working at cleaning their kills just before a ferocious Indian attack sends them running for their lives. A surly man named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) resents the presence of Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the half-Indian son of their guide, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio). He also openly disagrees with their Captain’s (Domhnall Gleeson) course of action.
While scouting ahead solo, Hugh then suffers the most horrifyingly realistic bear attack ever created on film. It is the one and only moment in the otherwise detached and lengthy film that grips you with a vice-like visceral intensity, if you can manage to sit through it. You experience every bit of the hopeless terror of the situation as if it were happening to you. And just when you think you’ve somehow survived, you’re hit with a second even more powerful onslaught.
Though he survives the attack, Hugh is firmly ensconced at Death’s door. Fitzgerald begrudgingly offers to oversee his final hours and give him a proper burial for a hefty fee. However, he commits heinous acts of violence and abandonment that give Hugh a renewed will to live long enough to bring about Fitzgerald’s end.
DiCaprio’s work is more laudable endurance than brilliant performance. He spends a lot of time in icy water or stomping through deep snow and appears to tear into a raw fish. His characterization, on the other hand, mainly consists of grimacing in pain, breathing heavily and wandering longingly through far too many dream sequences with vaguely symbolic imagery. The ill-defined script offers little more for him but to survive and kill.
“The Revenant” shows us mankind at a base and violent level worse than that of wild animals while also offering an element of “white man bad; Indian good” amidst all the savagery. There are no character relationships, only confrontations. With no investment in the characters and action, the movie is as cold and distant as its unforgiving landscape. Though it captures the vastness of that landscape, it has none of the grandeur or depth of human experience achieved in the frontier masterpiece “Dances With Wolves.” It brilliantly “Wrangles with Bear” but fails to engage otherwise.