“The Revenant” is based in part on Michael Punke’s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, which is a true story about American frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass in Montana and South Dakota in 1823. Adapted by Alejandro Iñárritu, Mark Smith, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, we get an intense and thrilling story of survival and revenge that never lets up from the moment the story takes off.
Hugh Glass is a fur trapper and tracker working with a large band out in the wilderness. All we really learn of his past is that his Native American wife was killed in a raid and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who now joins him on his jobs, was scarred. After that, a war party attacks his group and after a massacre, forces them to flee down the river. Already their job has taken a turn for the worse, but while scouting a trail Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear.
This sequence is one of the most intense and shocking in the entire film. It’s utterly brutal and horrific to see him torn to ribbons and tossed around like a ragdoll against a monstrous opponent. The encounter left him battered and clinging to life, not a great condition to be in while running from vengeful natives. It’s decided that he can’t be saved and should be left behind. The leader of the trapping group (played by Domhnall Gleeson) orders a few men, Hawk included, to stay behind and bury him once he passes. Unfortunately the other man who stays behind decides it’s better all around if he kills him rather than wait for him to expire. This results in a struggle that gets Glass’s son killed and leaves him left for dead. So begins his crawl across the wilderness as he drags himself back to life in order to get revenge.
It’s actually a very simple premise and story, most of it told without a lot of dialogue and through visuals rather than expository or even straightforward narration. The performances from the leads are very strong, Leonardo DiCaprio showing how physical he can be, since he probably has the least amount of dialogue of any of the central cast. His performance, while difficult, doesn’t convey anything beyond the struggle. There’s no real sense of character from DiCaprio’s portrayal, and no matter how dirty he gets, Leonardo DiCaprio is always going to be Leonardo DiCaprio. His star persona trumps any accent or costume that he struggles to hide under. On the other hand, Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald gives a very naturalistic performance as he just disappears into his role. Fitzgerald is a selfish monster of a man in a time and place that allowed for very little else. His motivations stem from his own brutal encounters with natives, his greed and his narrow view of survival. All that matters to him is that he be paid so he can go somewhere else and live a little easier. Anything that interferes with that needs to be removed. Simple as that.
The cinematography is incredible, with gorgeous and breathtaking snow covered wilderness making up the majority of the world. Director Alejandro Iñárritu employs frequent long takes, especially during the action sequences, and keeps the camera moving and kinetic, as though the cameraman were involved in the story as another character. The camera lens gets splattered with mud, rain, and blood as it crawls around in the muck with Glass across the wild terrain. Even with all the grime and violence, there’s an unmistakable beauty to the landscape and natural vistas. It’s an amazing contrast to see the savagery of man and nature pitted against such serene beauty. There’s CGI used, but it’s reserved only for animals and adding to what would otherwise be impossible sequences to film (the most obvious being that bear). It blends in well and, bear attack aside, is never the focus of any given shot, keeping the entire tone as brutal and grounded as possible.
“The Revenant” is a survivalist story as much as it is a revenge quest, with most of the movie following Glass as he barely manages to survive one deadly threat after another. Most of the movie his greatest enemy is just the untamed and unforgiving landscape which accosts him at every turn. He’s just as likely to die from his own injuries as he is from the harsh environment or the natives hunting him. It never lets up and by the end you’ll feel as worn down as the protagonist.
It’s epic and savage, gripping and beautiful. “The Revenant” is another incredible drama that tells a story in a purely cinematic fashion, cutting away anything unnecessary for pure uncompromising imagery.