Two centuries on, I’m not sure we fully appreciate the accomplishments of Lewis and Clark and the men who followed in their immediate footsteps across the great expanse of the Louisiana Purchase. Perhaps The Revenant will begin to change that in some small way. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning film Birdman is the partially true story of Hugh Glass, an experienced frontiersman and fur trapper who, in the 1820s, was viciously mauled by a bear and then left for dead by two men in his company, only to show up alive months later at the remote outpost where the rest of his company was stationed.
Glass army-crawled, staggered and stumbled his way across some of the most difficult terrain in the United States, and he did it with severe wounds, surrounded by hostile bands of Indians, and, mostly, in the dead of winter. It’s a tale of survival that practically demands a backstory, and so here is Inarritu to give it to us.
His version of the Glass story is one of survival fueled by revenge, plain and simple. He’s chosen Leonardo DiCaprio to channel that single-mindedness, and this role represents an enormous challenge physically. It demands all of the physicality of the quaaludes scene in The Wolf of Wall Street -- complete with wheezing and uncontrolled spittle hitting the lens -- and brings exactly none of the humor with it.
Inarritu doesn’t spare his leading man or his audience any of the gory details. Very early in the film, DiCaprio is tossed around like a ragdoll by the bear — raked by its claws, sunk in to by its jaws — and it’s all misery and struggle from there on out. (Given that the film opens with an Indian attack, it’s not all sunshine and roses before that point.) The bear attack, aside from being quite possibly the best single scene of 2015, sets the story in motion. Glass, unable to walk, becomes an enormous liability to his company, slowing them down when they can ill-afford to take their time. The threat of another attack by the Arikara Indians — “the Rees,” as they are derisively referred to — is ever-present.
This is how the leader of the band, played by Domhnall Gleeson, makes the excruciating decision to leave Glass behind. Three men, his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), wilderness greenhorn Bridger (Will Poulter), and Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), are to stay with him and give him a proper burial upon his inevitable death. Trouble is, Glass won’t die, and each moment they stay with him waiting for his last breath could be sealing their own fate as well. So Fitzgerald — more of a brutish, selfish, self-interested archetype than an actual character — takes matters in to his own hands. He kills Glass’ son and, after hiding the body, convinces Bridger to leave the doomed Glass behind with a story about 20 “Rees” at a nearby creek. He even drags Glass to a half-dug grave and throws some dirt on him. Glass is not quite buried alive, but he might as well be.
The last gasp never comes for Glass, though. The determination to dispense justice keeps him alive, sure. But so does old fashioned good luck — a fortunately placed animal carcass here and there — his knowledge of the territory, gleaned from his time with the Pawnee tribe, and a helping hand from a few of the natives who are not hostile to him simply because he is a white man.
Inarritu has developed something of a trademark style at this point, and it marries wonderfully with a story like this. He brings an intimacy to the act of survival that makes you feel like you are huddled by a campfire with Glass. The tight closeups of DiCaprio especially, but of Bridger, Hawk, Fitzgerald and Captain Henry (Gleeson) too, and the often-slight upward tilt of his lens make the wilderness visceral. You feel the cold, but in different ways, from the wet chill of an unwanted dip in the river to the unrelenting bite of a winter storm. When that lens is tilted just a little bit further upward, the birches and firs seem about twice as tall and imposing.
As with Birdman, he also leans heavily on tracking shots (or simulated tracking shots?) to speed the film up when needed, reserving it almost exclusively for the heart-pounding action sequences where Glass or members of his outfit come face to face with the indigenous people who mostly mean them harm.
The version of the Glass story that Inarritu opts for is, to me at least, surprisingly narrow. Lip service is paid to the white invasion of native lands, but a few lines of dialogue and some flashbacks to Glass’ time with the Pawnee don’t make this a film about Manifest Destiny. No, The Revenant is about a simple, brainless kind of vengeance that is interesting in its own way, but hardly insightful and original. And I say all that as someone who felt the same way about the book, and found the film to be decidedly less ambitious thematically than its source material.
What a book can’t deliver that Inarritu can (and does) is a total, real-feeling vision of the American frontier in the 1820s and, beyond even that, what survival in the harshest of conditions is actually like. The Revenant is a mood film from start to finish, and a terrific one at that. It won’t make you think about the big picture — about the implications of Glass and company wading in to foreign territory like they own it. But it will put you in his waterlogged moccasins for a few hours. I’m happy to have gotten the chance, and even happier that exercise was purely figurative.