A famous stage direction in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale reads: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” A bear has to be introduced at this point, but it’s up to the discretion of the theatrical director to figure out how to do it. In his wilderness survival/revenge movie The Revenant, filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu takes the direct approach. A giant grizzly bear rises up out of the underbrush behind star Leonardo DiCaprio and runs straight at him—and the audience. But this bear does not merely pursue; a savage mauling commences, every moment of which we get to watch in excruciating detail for many long minutes.
As a piece of filmmaking, it’s an extraordinary sequence. But in dramatic terms, while the scene is as visceral and horrifying as it needs to be for the purposes of the story, it’s hard for the viewer (OK, me) to quell that nagging voice in her head that wonders: how the heck did they do that? We’re caught up in the spectacle, not the drama.
And that’s just the beginning of this literally blood-soaked tale of brutality, loss and revenge. Like most of Iñárritu’s films (Amores Perros; Babel; Birdman), it’s a morality play, although morality is slippery in the world of rival American and French fur trappers encroaching on native lands, native tribes defending their turf from the white men and each other, unforgiving nature (and of course, that bear), in which The Revenant takes place. It’s more like a post-morality play in which greed, commerce, violence, and villainy are so deeply entrenched that no one emerges with his soul unscathed.
In the American frontier of the 1820s, a party of trappers from a distant fort are out in the wilderness collecting pelts under the command of the youthful but conscientious Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Their tracker, loner Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), lived with an Indian tribe for years—until white soldiers burned the village and killed his native wife. Now he’s been hired to lead trappers through the forest with his teenage son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck).
When a band of Arikara (or “Ree”) warriors attack their camp, only a few men escape to their boat. They’ve ditched the boat downriver as a decoy and are heading back to the fort on foot when Glass has his close encounter with the bear. There’s barely enough of him left for Henry (who’s had some medical training) to stitch back together. They drag Glass along on a litter for awhile, until the captain finally makes the fateful decision to leave the dying Glass behind with two trappers to give him a decent burial.
But the designated caregivers are Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a shifty opportunist with a half-scalped pate who’s already had run-ins with “Injun-lovin” Glass, and Bridger (Will Poulter), a green youth Fitzgerald knows he can bully. The trappers’ odyssey back to the fort plays out against a Ree chieftain trading their stolen pelts with the French trappers for guns and horses on his own mission of vengeance. Meanwhile, Glass claws his way back from the brink of death using all his Junior Woodchuck skills, motivated by one thing: revenge on the dastardly Fitzgerald.
Gruesome bloodletting mostly ensues. While the bear is instinctively protecting her cubs, the human animals are more vicious, according to their separate agendas—and the moral decisions they (may or may not) choose to make. Still, Iñárritu handles other passages with quiet lyricism. Glass’ fever dreams are beautifully staged, particularly those involving the haunting presence of his unnamed wife (Grace Dove), and a crumbling, highly symbolic Spanish mission. Landscapes are vast and uncaring, and many establishing shots of sky-scraping treetops echo his wife’s parable that “A tree with strong roots will not fall.”
A lone Pawnee brave whose village has been massacred by the Sioux befriends Glass, and in the one moment of levity, they catch snowflakes on their tongues. This man delivers the moral of the story, that vengeance is in the hands of the Creator, although it takes a lot more killing, knifing, maiming, and bleeding before the characters and the filmmakers remember it.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Domhnall Gleeson. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Rated R. 156 minutes.