At a crucial point in The Revenant, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio slices open a newly dead horse, empties it of its bloody entrails, and curls up for warmth inside its carcass, gripping the flesh tightly around him. It’s a rare moment of respite in Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s relentlessly brutal saga of survival and revenge.
DiCaprio suffers for his art in Iñárritu’s film, which chronicles the unimaginable ordeal of real-life fur trapper Hugh Glass, who was savagely mauled by a bear and left for dead by his men in the frozen wilderness of 1823 America.
Although it’s the result of some terrific digital trickery, that grueling 5-minute bear attack scene – all blood and claws and drool – could alone turn away the weak hearted. And that’s even before you see Glass being buried in the earth while still alive, setting his throat on fire to prevent infection, chomping on raw bison liver, and riding off the edge of a cliff.
Miraculously, Glass survives all of it, and he somehow makes the journey through the punishing landscape, dragging his battered body through snow, across rivers, up rocks and mountains, driven by revenge. In his sights is Fitzgerald (a deliciously menacing Tom Hardy), the man responsible for abandoning him to die and for forcing him to watch as his young son is murdered in front of his eyes.
Like they did with Birdman, Iñárritu and his trusted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki employ long, unbroken takes to great effect, particularly in the film’s visceral action scenes, which feel urgent and immersive as a result. Lubezki, who shot the film only in natural light, captures both the beauty and the treacherous nature of the expansive wilderness, which is as much a character in the film as the cast.
Yet despite its strengths, The Revenant never feels like much more than a simple revenge drama. It’s evident that Iñárritu is striving to communicate bigger ideas, but his exploration of such themes as spirituality, man’s relationship with nature, and empathy for Native Americans is surface-level at best.
At a running time of 2 hours and 36 minutes, the film feels too long and often repetitive. It’s visually and emotionally unrelenting, and requires that you come armed with patience – a lot of it. In many ways, the best thing about The Revenant is DiCaprio and his unwavering commitment to the material. It’s a largely wordless performance, and yet the 41-year-old star, buried under a mound of facial hair and furs, succeeds in conveying the character’s anguish and determination through the powerful emotions in his eyes, and the grunts and groans as he pushes his body to breaking point. It’s exactly the kind of performance that the Academy loves, so it’s hardly any surprise that he’s the frontrunner for Best Actor this year.
I’m going with three out of five for The Revenant. Iñárritu’s muscular filmmaking must be applauded, even if the film itself is as exhausting as it is thrilling.