A revenant is a return. Usually it is associated with coming back from the dead, which is why “the revenant” was an appellation given to Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose remarkable story of wilderness survival after being mauled by a grizzly bear is chronicled by an intense new film by “Birdman” director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Visually stunning, impressively constructed, “The Revenant” is almost entirely about Glass’ amazing journey back from near death, though Glass’ real-life story is at least as much about his tracking and retribution against the men who left him to die. “The Revenant” tells even this part differently, however, making curious changes to the real story in addition to leaving much out. Glass’ history is enough for two films, and certainly too much for one as ambitious as this, whose achievements are its biggest challenges.
What’s not in question is that “The Revenant” looks amazing. It opens with a bravura battle between the fur trapping company Glass works for and hostile natives, the camera following the action in the freezing outdoors of the American West as if we are there. (Bundle up no matter what temperature it is in the real world. You will feel cold just by looking at the screen.)
DiCaprio’s Glass is a scout who runs afoul of one of the company’s trappers, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), arguing over strategies for avoiding more natives. When Glass is mauled nearly to death, the company’s boss, (Domhnall Gleeson), inexplicably entrusts Fitzgerald to stay behind with Glass, Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and another volunteer (Brendan Fletcher). They are expected to keep Glass comfortable while he dies and give him a proper burial.
The movie overplays its hand a little by previously revealing Fitzgerald to be a selfish, conniving man, so it comes as little surprise when he turns complete scoundrel and abandons Glass after murdering his boy. Better handled is the way, after the betrayal, Fitzgerald controls Jim Bridger (Fletcher) with a careful mix of wheedling and intimidation. The movie also sets up a nifty confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald that plays irrespective of the two men’s proximity to each other. Both are completely obstinate, both survivors.
Glass and Fitzgerald have opposing wills, but what else? Iñárritu laces the proceedings with Terrence Malick-like flashbacks of Glass haunted by memories of his dead wife and son. But any insight into his character they provide is purely speculative. Iñárritu seems intent on upping the ante on “Birdman,” but while equally satisfying on technical levels, this is a much more purely visceral experience.
What “The Revenant” does undeniably well is impress, photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki (“Birdman,” “Gravity,” “The Tree of Life”), arguably the world’s greatest working cinematographer. The grizzly attack alone almost makes the film worth seeing. But other noteworthy set pieces include a race down a rapid, freezing river, a cliff leap from horseback, and even comparatively throwaway moments like a friendship kindled between Glass and another survivor over the burning corpse of a buffalo.
Filmed on location in what had to be trying conditions, at least one crew member reportedly told the Hollywood Reporter the shoot was “a living hell.” Given the skill with which studios silence their worker bees, except when they want to drum up publicity, such reports should always be taken with a grain of salt. But even one-location productions shot indoors can be a living hell, so it is impressive to see what Iñárritu and Lubezki accomplished.
The only thing they didn’t get in camera was very deep into the inner lives of their characters. This is the perfect vehicle for “Mad Max” star Hardy, called on yet again, to grunt and avoid all eye contact as shorthand for acting. DiCaprio seems the more wasted of the two, his character ever in agony, like he’s stretching out the plane crash scene in “The Aviator” to feature length.
Glass led a remarkable life beyond the events that provided his nickname and this movie’s title. Little of that is revealed here, but the survival story, constructed with astounding skill, should be enough to drag you to the nearest theater. “The Revenant” was absolutely the best title for this small but insane moment of Glass’ life. The movie doesn’t say all that much, but it is an incredible feat. (R) 156 min. S