By definition a revenant is someone who returns, but there is often a connotation that they are returning from the dead like a specter. The term gives major insight into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest undertaking with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a fully immersive, grimy, gory, grisly, grizzly-filled piece of cinema caked in blood, sweat, and tears in every sense of the word.
Its production took the cast and crew to Canada and Argentina to shoot sequences that were probably just as desolate in person as they looked onscreen. In that way Iñárritu did not fudge or cheat with the use of excessive computer generated imagery. Even if his production was overlong and undoubtedly volatile, you could say he was rewarded with vast expanses of engulfing cinematic visuals. Emmanuelle Lubezki yet again probably becomes one of the film’s biggest assets and his use of natural lighting is superb. In truth, it’s a painful exhibition in acting by DiCaprio and this icy frostbitten wilderness becomes the backdrop for a gargantuan feat of survival.
What would inspire such a film? I think many people were asking that, and it does find some of its story from the true circumstances of Hugh Glass, a 19th century explorer, trapper, and guide who was part of a fur trapping expedition out west. After enduring an onslaught from a group of belligerent Pawnee, Glass can hardly recover from a bear mauling that essentially leaves him a lifeless carcass of a man.
His scared and scattered band is just hoping to get to their outpost to regroup, but their leader (Domhnall Gleeson capping off a phenomenal year) is intent on holding onto Glass, because he’s the only one who knows the way back. His main insubordinate is the grubby, paranoid, scumbag John Fitzgerald, played so invariably corrupt by Tom Hardy. Glasses Pawnee-born son, the young trapper Bridger (Will Poulter) and a reluctant Fitzgerald agree to stay behind with the feeble man, while the others push forward. But being the backstabber that he is, Fitzgerald looks to bury Glass alive or finish him off for good with his musket. It doesn’t make much difference to him, but Hawk doesn’t want to see his father dead. Fitzgerald could care less. After all, what is he supposed to do? Keep this man alive only so he might die too?
Bridger naively follows Fitzgerald’s lead and they leave Glass behind for dead. There is no man who could survive, half-frozen, half-dead and still find a way to live another day. That’s where the story goes into stage two of survival.
The images that follow are ceaselessly gripping with majestic landscapes that are raw and brutal in the same breath. DiCaprio forges through streams, makes fires by some miracle, and keeps warm any way humanly possible. To don such a role you almost have to give up any human sensibilities and allow yourself to simply exist. He crawls and claws painfully, eats raw meat torn from a dead bison carcass, and sleeps inside the hide of his dead horse. It should repulse us in our modern lifestyles of comfort and excess, but in the same sense it is a fascinating portrait of realism taken to the extreme.
The final chapter follows Glass as he returns to the fort, gets in contact with Captain Henry, only to chase after the fleeing Fitzgerald one last time. When he caught news of the ghost man’s return from the dead he knew the implications. Dead men tell no tales, but it’s a different story if they don’t die.
Unfortunately The Revenant is rather laborious in the end and it’s a fatalistic revenge tale certainly but it’s not altogether satisfying. True, the perpetrator of evil is brought to justice, but that doesn’t mean a great deal. Perhaps because we admire Glasses gumption, but we never really build a connection with him. He truly is a solitary figure looking to avenge the death of his boy. There’s not more to grab hold of with this dynamic, maybe due to the fact that he is really a ghost. He’s so gaunt, battered, and spent that there is little space for emotions to fill all the nooks and crannies. Only a constant, pulsing desire for vengeance.
Still, we can always go back and be contented in Lubezki’s gorgeously stark visuals. The frontier look of this film brought to mind Malick’s film (also with Lubezki) The New World for a brief instant, and it makes me want to give it another look. Otherwise, The Revenant stands as an impressive feat, but it does not quite have the emotional wallop that it had the potential to wield. Although, the performances are thoroughly impressive, even if it’s more for their singular commitment than anything else.