After directing Birdman, last year’s Best Picture winner, Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu returns with a survival tale set against the backdrop of American colonialism as settlers try to claim the land and civilize the “savages” that inhabit it. Leonardo DiCaprio, who does not get raped by a bear like you may have heard (yes, this was a thing), stars as Hugh Glass, a man who married a native and bore a half-breed son. Glass is the bridge between cultures, and he faces grave consequences because of it – in a raid by British soldiers his wife is killed, and years later he and his interracial son are ostracized by other pioneers. When Hugh is attacked by a bear and abandoned by his co-workers, three men stay to provide him care: Hawk, who is his son, Jim, an open-minded teenager, and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a greedy man who isn’t worried about Hugh’s welfare, only the reward he will receive for giving him a proper burial. Hawk is killed by John, who later tricks Jim into leaving Hugh for dead. This sets up a simplistic survival/revenge plot: Hugh will literally crawl out of his grave to trek across the snowy and brutal expanse to avenge his son.
At 156 minutes, this plot may seem a little too sparse, even considering that there are two other sub-plots: a tribe of natives are searching for the chief’s daughter, and a group of French settlers appear infrequently. The Revenant is entertaining and layered, a survival epic that is essentially a $135 million art-house extravaganza. There are thrilling action set-pieces and quieter moments of poetry, violent outbursts of gore and distinct auteurist flourishes. It’s bold, divisive filmmaking on a colossal scale.
There will be those who will argue that The Revenant is too long, too self-indulgent, too violent, and too self-absorbed, but Iñárritu, whose last film was almost entirely edited to appear like one long take, has appeared to one-up himself in terms of technical prowess and brutal self-harm: an infamously difficult shoot that went $50 million over-budget with numerous members of the crew being fired or leaving the production. The film was shot in nowhere-Canada and when the Great White North became too warm, they headed south to Argentina to finish production. One wonders what Iñárritu could possibly do next: a one-man-made film done entirely with a single-take that is shot in space? If it were humanly possible, I would have been afraid to give him the idea.
Although The Revenant delivers a determined and devoted performance from DiCaprio, and typically rapturous cinematography from two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, the film is still thematically intriguing, considering the colonizers violent attack on nature and its significance to the indigenous people.
During one of the shots at the beginning of the film, following an opening flashback where Hugh’s wife is brutally murdered, there is a near-silent moment as the camera slowly tilts upstream, showing its stillness, serenity and spirituality. We are entranced – transported into the earth’s quiet majesty – when, suddenly, the tip of an ugly musket impedes our view. A frontiersman, a symbol of the colonizers’ attempt to own the land, is violently attacking its unity, the life force that keeps it all connected. The Revenant is not an environmentalist film, but a profound critique of the savagery that causes imbalance, that breaks the natural order, and that separates families.
Throughout, nature becomes a character, responding to the brutality, reacting in defense, and mourning its own losses. Linked to the indigenous peoples’ spirituality, nature has a unified life force of its own: breathing through the wind, crying with the snow, and attacking with its violent beasts. A polytheistic current runs through the film like the streams that flow across the frame. There is a stunning series of graphic matches where a man’s breath fades into the clouds before transitioning to a character’s pipe: man and nature, life and non-life, are all connected.
This spiritualistic subtext butts heads with the Christian settlers who religiously follow manifest destiny, taming the land and the indigenous people, who are seen as nothing more than an extension of it. In one sequence, John Fitzgerald speaks of how he delighted in eating a squirrel that was believed to be a god. The land, its animals, its “savages,” and its culture, are meaningless to him, nothing more than something to kill and consume.
This disrespect for natural balance, the natives, and family ties (remember, he killed Hugh’s son) is what thematically connects the examination of colonialism with the revenge plotline. Hugh emerges as a natural force sent to seek vengeance for the land, natives, and even the settlers who disagree with Fitzgerald’s actions.
It is this rebirth that derives the film’s idiosyncratic title – a revenant is a corpse that has returned to terrorize the living. Hugh is reborn in a pastiche of symbols drawing from the native spiritualism, the settler’s Christianity, and even secular Darwinism. His scars recall Jesus’ lashings; he sleeps in the womb of a horse; and over the course of his recovering he evolves from crawling on the ground to standing completely upright. Hugh, who speaks both English and the natives’ language, becomes a hybrid culture, the first in uniting the settlers and natives into one family. Teepees are depicted outside the settler’s fort, but Hugh was the first to openly integrate them inside, exchanging culture and sharing a mutual respect for the land.
The Revenant is as difficult to tackle as a grizzly bear. It’s punishingly long, gruelingly violent, consistently harrowing, narratively thin, thematically dense, stunningly shot, emotionally obscured, and layered in references (Abbey in the Oakwood and Aguirre, the Wrath of God among them). The film is like the Quaalude scene from The Wolf Of Wall Street, extended to over two hours and stripped of any humor. At a certain point, it feels like Iñárritu has gone too far. There is too much beauty, too many long takes, and too many ideas. In almost every facet of filmmaking – acting, directing, writing – the film is superb, perfectly calibrated to provoke thought and visceral devastation. But by the time DiCaprio looks directly into the camera in the final shot, we feel like the fourth wall has already been broken. The film never felt effortless. I was almost always conscious of its construction, and left to appreciate the formal virtuosity without being fully immersed in the setting, characters or plot.
The Revenant is one of the more indulgent and visual experiences I’ve had at the movies, with glorious landscapes, natural lighting, and picturesque majesty, but the film is more than a demo-reel of mountain ranges. It is about the land itself – the indigenous people that live on it, the spirituality that is linked to it, and the violent attempt by colonizers to tame it.