When Leonardo DiCaprio read the words, "exit, pursued by a bear," in the script for The Revenant, he must have seen the Oscar flash before his eyes. It certainly wouldn't have been the hair and makeup — or the dialogue, for that matter — in Alejandro González Iñárritu's epic new film that caught his interest. The Revenant is a bold, brutal and beautiful story of vengeance and survival set in the Great Plains during the 1820s. It isn't always easy to watch but DiCaprio's transformation into Hugh Glass, the eponymous revenant (a spirit or ghost) is impressive and you can tell how much he has put into the role in every single scene. Surely, the Oscar is his at last.
As the film opens, Glass and the other members of his Missouri River fur-trading expedition, including his captain, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), sparring partner John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). A Native American ambush causes the surviving men to flee down river. Glass, the lead scout, and Fitzgerald, a fur trapper, disagree over the fastest, safest way to return to base with their huge cargo of furs. Glass wins the argument but tensions are high and Fitzgerald simmers with resentment, waiting for his opportunity.
He doesn't have to wait long as Glass undergoes a horrific attack from a seriously angry grizzly bear. I had heard about the scene in advance but it didn't quite prepare me for its brutality — or its length. Fitzgerald wants to "finish him off right now" and press on, but Henry insists that several men stay behind to give him a proper burial, in exchange for a financial bonus. The greedy, scheming Fitzgerald is, of course, among the volunteers, and it isn't long before he decides to leave Glass for dead and return home to pick up their bonus. But Glass isn't dead, although he is in pretty bad shape, and he is willing to use every ounce of determination and strength left in his wrecked body to find his way back to base and wreak his vengeance.
The pacing of The Revenant is somewhat unpredictable: long, languorous takes of stunning and peaceful American landscapes are juxtaposed with scenes of relentless, savage violence. Ryuichi Sakamoto's haunting score is perfect too, its doleful cello sounding out an apology for the acts of brutality we have just witnessed. The film is light on plot but has a rich, expressive narrative. Glass hardly speaks — for some of the time, his injuries mean that he can only communicate via pained grunts — but DiCaprio is able to convey volumes about the character, his relationship with his Native American wife and their son, and the measureless pain he feels as a result of being separated from them.
DiCaprio is really excellent here: he truly becomes Glass and is able to turn a wounded man's slow, stumbling progress across an icy, unforgiving landscape into a compelling piece of cinema. Hardy shines too, putting on a fine frontier accent, although his ranting, raging Fitzgerald veers towards pantomime at times. In between our 'good' hero and our 'bad' villain, is Captain Henry. At first he seems like a good captain — loyal to his men before all else — but, to modern eyes, at least, it is hard to ignore some of his remarks about Native Americans.
The film focuses a fair bit on ownership, precedence and "rights" — Henry's company are attacked because they "have stolen everything from [the tribe]", from furs to land and women. Another Native American is murdered by the French and left hanging with a sign that says, "On est tous des sauvages" (we are all savages). Well, quite. Glass, then, is seen as more sympathetic because he tries to treat the Native people he meets with respect and sees them as equals; he even speaks two Native American languages. And it is a Native American man he is travelling with who offers up a valuable lesson: "Revenge is in the creator's hands."
I saw a preview of The Revenant last Monday night and its length and subject matter made it a little hard-going at times and left me feeling as emotionally drained as though I had been mauled by a metaphorical bear. But don't let that put you off because Iñárritu has crafted a film that is as literally breathtaking as it is bloody, where familial love has as central a role as vengeance.