Is there another filmmaker making movies today with a bigger God complex than Alejandro González Iñárritu? Beginning with his Spanish-language debut, the masterful Amores Perros in 2000, Iñárritu has taken an omniscient, I-know-better-than-you tone that came off as draggy, self-important arrogance when the movies didn’t work (21 Grams, Biutiful) and creative prowess when they did (Babel, Birdman). In his sixth film, The Revenant, which was famously (infamously?) shot on location in inhospitable climates using only natural light and minimal special effects — a creative decision that led to a troubled production and budget overruns — Iñárritu puts his actors through ordeals that would make even the notoriously tyrannical James Cameron balk.
Was the end result worth all the trouble? The answer comes in the first 10 minutes, when a group of fur trappers, preparing to sail home on the Missouri River in the early 1800s after months hunting in the wild, is set upon by an Arikara tribe. Arrows and tomahawks fly, rifles fire and men die in horrific ways. Iñárritu, reuniting with his Birdman cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, shoots the mayhem in long takes, the camera swinging and zooming around in a way you’ve never seen before, placing you in the middle of the battle with such intensity that you duck and cower in your seat.
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The sequence is extraordinary, but that’s not the last time The Revenant startles you with images that seem impossible (there’s a stunning shot of a man on horseback riding off a cliff, the camera following him like a trailing kite). Here is a movie about survival in the wilderness in which the filmmakers too seem to have been fending off grave danger. But all that stuff works subconsciously; Iñárritu doesn’t dwell on his own derring-do. The focus is on Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a member of the hunting party who is teaching his half-Pawnee teenage son (Forrest Goodluck) to become a tracker. While on a scouting mission apart from the other men, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear and badly mauled.
When transporting Glass by stretcher across rocky terrain becomes too much of a burden, the captain (Domhnall Gleeson) decides to leave him behind in the company of three men — Glass’ son, another young man (Will Poulter) and a cantankerous, treacherous lout named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) — so they can give their fallen comrade a proper burial once he dies from his injuries, as he almost surely will.
But Fitzgerald, unhappy about being left behind to care for a man who is beyond help, hatches a different plan. The Revenant is partly based on Michael Punke’s novel, which was inspired by the true story of the real-life Glass, a frontiersman who lived through an extraordinary ordeal. But Iñárritu, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark L. Smith, appropriates the premise of the story and turns it into something else — a primal tale of survival and revenge, leavened with touches of spirituality and the otherworldly (“I ought to be God,” Fitzgerald mutters in one of the film’s many references to a higher power).
The weakest moments in The Revenant are the ones in which Iñárritu puts too much trust in his artistic impulses: The sight of a little bird flying out of a woman’s chest as she dies comes off clunky instead of poetic, even if it takes place during a dream sequence. Some of the other visions Glass experiences while in a state of near-death (the way he spends half the movie, really) stand out as unnecessary artistic flourishes in a movie already filled with natural, savage beauty. Lubezki often shoots scenes with a wide-angle lens that pulls more visual information into the frame than a regular lens: When the camera pans up to show us the immense trees towering over the characters, you feel like you’re in the forest with them.
And the forest, at least in The Revenant, is an awful place to be. DiCaprio doesn’t so much act in the movie as endure it — half of his dialogue consists of grunts and “Arrgh!” and “Ugh!” — but he brings more to the role than sheer physicality. Glass’ relationship with his son, which is intended to form the movie’s emotional center, is too thinly rendered to make an impression. But DiCaprio is too lively, too resourceful, to allow the movie to sink into grim, solemn horror. His character may be a metaphor — a personification of our innate instinct to survive — but DiCaprio also gives him a soul.
As his gnarled, inhuman antagonist, Hardy has a lot more to work with: The actor relishes the profound odiousness of the character he’s playing. But Iñárritu is ultimately the main attraction of The Revenant: Everything in this giant, harrowing film is at the service of his vision (even the score, written in part by the eclectic Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, sounds like music from inside someone’s head). The fact that the last line of dialogue is spoken five minutes before the end credits roll is telling: Words matter little in a movie that favors seeing and feeling above all else. It’s a work of pure, furious sensation.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard, Arthur Redcloud.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Screenwriters: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro González Iñárritu.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 156 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, brief nudity, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.