The Revenant asks for more than just your attention; the film requires your surrender to its overwhelming spectacle. The Revenant’s crystalline landscapes evoke wonder as effectively as its unremittent gore and violence evoke revulsion. The intensity of those feelings is what makes this film remarkable.
Based on actual events, The Revenant’s plot is a fundamentally American story: Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a rugged frontiersman, must fend for himself when he is betrayed by fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and left to die. Battling oppressive elements and hostile Indians, Glass seeks to persevere through sheer will and familial strength in order to wreak vengeance on the man who wronged him. The Revenant is shot with the same dizzying grace present in director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s last film, Birdman. In the opening scene, the camera seamlessly glides between the frantic movements of fighters and animals. Despite its physicality, The Revenant does not command awe with traditional heroism or glory; the two unambiguously moral characters— Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), the solitary Pawnee Indian who rescues Glass, and Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the leader of the trapping party—spend little time at the center of the camera’s attention. Though the ending is somewhat predictable and reveals its moral lesson heavy-handedly, its faults do not detract from the film’s compelling power.
The cast’s courage in braving the elements and the filmmakers’ stubborn demand—namely, Iñárritu’s insistence on filming only with natural light—significantly elevate The Revenant’s emotional clout and visual realism. Though the horrors of nineteenth-century expansionism are on full display, The Revenant is more concerned with the aesthetics of storytelling than with cultural commentary. The film affirms the strength of Iñárritu’s vision, as well as Lubezki’s place as Hollywood’s preeminent cinematographer. Leonardo DiCaprio’s physical acting as Hugh Glass also merits substantial praise. DiCaprio’s performance is exceptional not for the sympathy he garners, but for epitomizing the film’s themes. His concertos of grunts underscore The Revenant’s guttural aspect. His character’s constant anguish fits right alongside the frozen trees and flying arrows. Instead of a hero tale, The Revenant is an animalistic exploration of the frightening human capacity to endure and fight when survival is at stake.
A complaint I’ve heard from many friends is that this movie is not for all moviegoers. They are right: those who prefer an intricate, layered plot or multi-dimensional characters will find neither in The Revenant. The jarring aspects of the film ensure that The Revenant is not your conventional blockbuster. However, I enjoyed The Revenant so much precisely for those abundant moments of discomfort; watching Hugh Glass helpless before nature on screen in turn made me feel miniscule. Instead of providing emotional assurance, the film will hold you captive with the near-constant brutality of a winter in the wilderness. Watch The Revenant not to be inspired by a story of redemption, but to witness the savagery of both nature and humanity captured on screen.