The Revenant is a real meat-and-potatoes film, as rich in emotion and detail as it is visually mesmerizing, with enough violence and heart to chill your hardened, Montana marrow.
The film opens on a fur trading expedition in a cold forest somewhere on America's wild frontier in 1823. Among the men is Hugh Glass, a real-life character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his fictionalized son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who is half Pawnee and generally the light of Glass' otherwise bleak life. They are led by Captain Andrew Henry, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who you might remember as the redhead from Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Gleeson's had a big year, and this is my favorite of all his performances—what he lacks in physical presence, he makes up for with his intelligence and sincerity. Tom Hardy creates yet another character out of whole cloth as fellow fur trader John Fitzgerald. Everything you need to know about Fitzgerald or his values can be summarized when he says, "I ain't got no life, just got living, and the only way I do that is through these pelts." This movie could have gotten away with less, but Mark L. Smith's screenplay, coauthored by director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, Babel), is built on memorable lines like these.
The Revenant's inhospitable environment makes every moment feel like a case of life or death. Their expedition carries a pall of dread even before the group is ambushed by a Native tribe. Iñárritu nails the choreography of these battle scenes—both men and women will want to puke during the attack, and that's how you know it's working. The film is famously shot on location in Montana and parts of Canada under unwelcoming conditions using natural lighting. Even in the safe and warm cocoon of a movie theater, Iñárritu will have you feeling cold and lost for the duration. The Revenant looks like a Terrence Malick film (Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line) except it's not boring. More than Malick, I feel like Iñárritu channels Werner Herzog's 1972 epic Aguirre the Wrath of God in that both films depict the futility of proud men on a hopeless expedition in the face of both known and unknown enemies.
The woods are populated with warring tribes and interested parties, but two central conflicts captivated me the most. The first involves Hugh Glass and his unfortunate encounter with a mother grizzly bear and her cubs. Their fight to the death is a technical marvel and inspired in me a genuine religious experience, particularly when you compare it to the other conflict of the film: the competing egos of Glass and Fitzpatrick. In Fitzpatrick, we meet a man driven by bravado and paranoia (likely suffering from PTSD after a bad brush with Natives). The rivalry between Fitzpatrick and Glass seems to be based on pheromones and instincts, and in this way, it's no different from the circumstantial battle between Glass and the bear. In this landscape, the bear and the humans are on equal footing. The bear has cubs and her death matters.
If you know anything of the true life story of Hugh Glass, you know that he was left for dead by his party, only to travel hundreds of miles (hyperbole) crawling with his bare hands through a wild tundra in order to exact revenge on his enemies. The movie isn't called "Go Home and Forget About It," so we know the revenge plot stands, but what that means for the characters is stranger and less straightforward than you might imagine. This is one of 2015's best films.
The Revenant continues at the Carmike 12.