At one point in The Revenant, stranded fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes overnight shelter from a blizzard by removing the entrails of a dead horse and sliding into its hollowed-out carcass. When morning arrives, he slowly emerges, naked, from the grisly womb. At another point, he crawls out of his own shallow grave. These are stark visual metaphors for the theme of rebirth that permeates Alejandro González Iñárritu's epic neo-Western, set in the infancy of our nation's early-19th-century westward expansion and based on a true story.
A revenant is one who returns from the dead, as Glass seemed to after being mauled by a grizzly bear during a hunting expedition in 1820s Dakota Territory. Iñárritu plunges us into a milieu where the most daunting foe is the untamed terrain of thick forests, frigid mountaintops, wide plains and roaring rapids. The pelt trade is a source of enmity between American and French military and business interests and the Native Americans they are systematically exterminating from their ancestral home.
A bloody seven-minute clash between Glass' hunting party and the Arikara tribe is the most spectacular battle scene to open a movie since Saving Private Ryan. "I'm waiting for Captain Leavenworth to arrive with his army," says Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the leader of Glass' expedition and ostensibly one of the good guys in this bleak saga. "Then we'll have enough men to go back out there and shoot some civilization into those fucking [Indians]." The sentiment is as old as the Crusades and as relevant as the war in Iraq.
The bear attack is a visceral CGI triumph, rendered with natural simplicity and exacting brutality. (Internet rumors about Glass being "raped" by the grizzly are utterly unfounded.) He is later abandoned by the trappers tasked with watching over him, and the death of his part-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), further fuels Glass' revenge quest.
His main antagonist is John Fitzgerald, a bullying backwoodsman played by Tom Hardy, who seemingly prepared for the role by watching Tom Berenger in Platoon on a loop. Hardy is mesmerizing as a man whose lack of empathy, and even humanity, might be the very traits that have enabled him to outlive many of his brethren.
The Revenant, adapted from Michael Punke's 2002 novel, includes extraneous existential visions of Glass and his deceased Pawnee wife—meditative flourishes more befitting of Terrence Malick. These scenes could (and probably should) have been excised, but they meaningfully inform a moment when Glass encounters an abducted Native American girl. Iñárritu films it, along with many other sequences, with the tracking-shot technique he employed in Birdman, complemented by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's almost exclusive use of natural light. Stories abound about the film's grueling shoot and skyrocketing budget, but the end result is a cinematic tour de force, if not a rebirth.
This article appeared in print with the headline "American spirit"