When a group of trappers is attacked by Ree Indians, in search of their kidnapped daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), the fleeing frontiersmen rush onto a boat to drift down the river. Losing most of the valuable pelts and nearly all of his men (33 are killed while 10 make it to the raft), Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) decides to follow the advice of his chief explorer, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), in abandoning the vessel to find a new trail across the mountains on foot. As the disheveled gang makes their way through the harsh terrain, Glass wanders out to hunt alone in the forest, only to be viciously mauled by a protective mother bear.
“He’ll be dead inside an hour.” Though he sustains severe injuries beyond anything one might assume are survivable, Glass is stitched back together and hoisted along for a period of time – until rebellious soldier John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) determines that looking after the wounded man is detrimental to his own survival. Through deception and murder, Fitzgerald manages to abandon Glass – alone and in a shallow grave – to succumb to his wounds and the bitter cold. But Glass is no stranger to extreme perseverance, using staggering determination and a bit of luck to embark on a daring odyssey of unrelenting revenge.
The vivid wilderness setting is a character of its own; nearly every shot is a carefully staged, expertly choreographed, beautifully picturesque piece of scenery. And then there’s a bit of drama in between. Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is so exceedingly proud of every individual environmental image that he has painstakingly captured on film, but his efforts are to such a point of artistic distraction that he’s forgotten to tell a story. As an overabundance of running time is spent gorging on the stunning elements of dense forests and icy plains and sparkling rivers all basking in natural light, there’s no room left in the immense 156-minute production for any semblance of originality.
In favor of nonstop, mesmerizing technical achievements, “The Revenant” fails to be anything more than a series of striking images. There’s no substance to hold it all together; the character development is generic or nonexistent, while the revenge plot is simple and uninvolving. Even side stories (such as Glass’ half-Pawnee son, or barbarous French fur traders, or the Ree searchers themselves) have no impact on Glass’ epic venture to merely track down his betrayer – one whose dependence on the invaluable guide is briefly spoken of but never shown to the audience. It’s just a lot of surviving and trekking, surviving and trekking, in the most prolonged manner possible. The film is ultimately just a long, slow, bloody escalation to a long, slow, bloody climax.
With its intense focus on aesthetic camerawork (such as ceaseless circling around every character in a given scene), natural-lighting location shooting, and gruesome violence (in many ways, the film is trying to present the 1800s as a grotesque era full of lawless butchers), a painfully straightforward revenge yarn is bloated beyond reason. The story itself could be told in 30 minutes. But to its credit, “The Revenant” is a most unusual Western, mixing hints of Spaghetti styling and Sam Peckinpah’s flair for bloodthirstiness (like “Dances with Wolves” adapted by David Cronenberg) with the chaos of “Apocalypse Now” or “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” to create a feast of visual wonderment. It’s too bad that artistry and mindboggling techniques were the only things Inarritu cared about.