The Revenant is a simple pulp revenge story blown up to epic proportions. A gnarly tale of extreme survival and an ambivalent ode to masculine gruffness and stubborn righteousness, it takes as its setting wintry snow-swept tundra and forests of the American West in the early 19th century. There we find a group of fur trappers whose expedition is about to go wrong in just about every way it could. It’s a rugged Western and a bloody survival thriller, shot in gorgeous widescreen landscapes and patient lingering looks at fading sunsets, snaking fog, and curling smoke. There’s a great sense of place and space, striking and vividly photographed in graceful shots of impeccable detail. With it comes the feeling that this endlessly stretching wilderness trampled by invading white men and cycles of violence has led to a form of derangement. Even those who survive will be ever changed by the sheer effort it takes to survive on a good day, let alone when stranded in a cascading series of worst-case scenarios.
Star Leonardo DiCaprio exerts tremendous effort as the main figure tortured by the events of the film. It’s practically a secular passion play of frontier suffering. He plays an expert tracker and trapper haunted by memories of dead loved ones. After a bloody battle with Native Americans (shot in harrowing, expertly choreographed long takes), his colleagues are desperate to get home. Too bad, then, that DiCaprio is mauled by a bear (an overwhelming, mostly convincing, sequence) and left for dead. He's hastily placed in a shallow grave by a greedy and mean coworker (Tom Hardy) who’d just rather get back to the fort than sit around waiting for help. This all unfolds with patience and slowly accumulating dread, a series of inciting incidents gradually occurring. We meet a variety of men (Domhnall Gleeson, Maze Runner’s Will Poulter, newcomer Forrest Goodluck, Buzzard’s Joshua Burge) who are exhausted, crabby, sore, beaten down by the elements, resigned to dreary life in an isolating kill-or-be-killed ecosystem. But then there’s merely DiCaprio, alive only through some combination of vengeance and righteous spite, stumbling agonizingly slowly back towards civilization, and the man who did him wrong.
It’s one violent setback after the next as DiCaprio – torn to ribbons, rendered mainly mute, limping, groaning, spitting, bleeding – scratches his way through ice cold water, blinding snow, roaring winds, mysterious Natives, vicious traders, and other assorted conflicts and obstacles. It’s practically a catalogue of every way frontier life could kill you: weapons (rifles, arrows, knives, tomahawks, pistols), the elements (low temperatures, rapids, avalanches), disease, infection, dehydration, starvation, accidents, battles, and murder. The film sets up clearly a variety of reasons why Hardy is loathsome, though still reasonably human. And DiCaprio goes through a wringer of endless sequences of torturous pain – a faintly and grimly hilarious pile on of deadly and dangerous incidents – escalating in an exhausted what-now? effect. These visceral strands combine to create an elemental desire for DiCaprio, who should be dead several dozen times over, to get back to the fort and prove Hardy wrong.
But of course the overarching tension of the piece is not whether or not DiCaprio will live to confront Hardy again. Nor is it whether or not he’ll learn along the way that revenge is ultimately unsatisfying. (This is a revenge tale with movie stars, after all. We know where it’s headed.) It’s a tension between art house existential dread and gooey genre fare – never more than in a subplot about Natives looking for a kidnapped daughter (an inverted Searchers) treated as a plot engine and overly mystical essentialism. Alternately transcendent and brutal, the main suspense comes from wondering just how much punishment is going to be dealt to our hero. By the time we get a climactic nasty close-up of blood-soaked snow, we’ve already seen a mauling, a stabbing, a hanging, a rape, a few massacres, and a dead horse used for warmth, Tauntaun-style. It’s a lot to take, each new act of violence handled very seriously, with the thudding weight of a film out to be tactile and gross, emphasizing how difficult it all is.
Torn between artful self-importance and gripping narrative demands, it nonetheless forms a compelling whole. It’s directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who makes Very Important and very showy movies about human suffering like Babel and Birdman. His co-writer is Mark L. Smith, who wrote the brisk and nasty little horror movie Vacancy. It’s an interesting pairing. Together they’ve made a movie that’s gripping and long, a beautiful, miserable, suspenseful slog, well over two hours of one thing after another. It’s elegiac and solid, staggering natural formations held on screen as long shivering breaths between moments of pain, and then human figures slowly make their way through them. We might watch for several minutes as DiCaprio limps and winces his way up a hill, then crouches down behind a tree to see what new complications are in store. Nothing happens easy in this film. Iñárritu takes a simple story and makes it a showcase for his style and his skill, and the expert craft of his cast and crew, holding the ominous and steady tone.
The Revenant relies on committed performers and incredible cinematography to achieve its aims. DiCaprio is at his most primal here, often playing wordless scenes of anguish and exhaustion that are among his least phony on screen moments. But just as good is the supporting cast, especially an intense and unexpectedly darkly funny Hardy, a quietly panicking Poulter, and a hesitantly authoritative Gleeson. Together they form a nice cross-section of the different ways people can react to conflicts of lawless violence from nature and from man. The action is captured in dazzling photography by Emmanuel Lubezki, whose work on the likes of The Tree of Life, Children of Men, Burn After Reading, and many more equally visually rich films, has cemented him as one of modern cinema’s best image-makers. He uses austere long shots, drinking in natural beauty, and then hammers home turmoil in fluid takes. He gives the film its massive wide-open spaces, and its close-up intensity, clinging to actors, swiveling and swooping as they get swept up in chaotic moments. This is exquisitely inflated pulp.