The Revenant review: A brutal, showy revenge fantasy

And you thought Birdman was showing off

Back in 2011, trailers for Joe Carnahan’s The Grey had audiences primed to see an over-the-top adventure movie prominently featuring Liam Neeson taking on a pack of vicious wolves with his bare hands. The actual film was a surprise: rather than a gritty, macho, man vs. wild showdown, it’s a visually lovely meditation on life, as mused over by people under constant threat of death. And the promised wolf showdown never arrives — the trailer’s image of Neeson launching himself toward the pack is the final shot of the movie. The Grey is powerful and haunting; it just isn’t the movie that the trailer promised.

Fortunately for wildlife-brawl fans, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s bloody new drama The Revenant reads like the version of The Grey teased in those trailers. It’s just as chilly and striking, and just as focused on pack dynamics among men trying to assert control over a desperate situation by asserting control over each other. And while it may not be as thought-provoking, it certainly delivers on the bare-handed bear-fight front.

Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) based the screenplay on Michael Punke's The Revenant, a novel inspired by the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Glass, a hired guide helping a large band of fur trappers navigate the wilds of the Americas in the early 1800s. (The specific setting isn't identified, but Glass' real-life story took place in South Dakota, and the Arikara Natives he encounters are indigenous to North Dakota.) Glass is a soft-spoken man who seems to live slightly outside the physical world; like a character in a Terrence Malick movie, he seems perpetually dazed by nature, which he regards in a constant ecstasy of wonder. And like a Malick character, he's haunted by whispered voices. Throughout the film, he repeatedly re-experiences a metaphorical story his Pawnee wife told their son Hawk about the enduring power of a tree in a storm. And he helplessly flashes back over and over to the day a military troop murdered her and her tribe. Cradling his badly burned son Hawk afterward, he told him: "As long as you draw breath, you fight."

Those words come back to haunt him when the Arikara attack his trapping group in the dead of winter, killing more than 30 men. Glass and his beloved son, now a sullen, seething adult (and played by Forrest Goodluck) are among the 10 survivors. So are young greenhorn Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), weaselly John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and their commander, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, lately of Ex Machina and Frank). Then a bear mauls Glass, leaving him a mutilated, immobile wreck. Fitzgerald promptly takes the opportunity to betray him in a variety of tremendously personal ways. Left for dead, Glass has to haul himself out of a shallow grave (hence the title of the film), and come seeking revenge.

Stories of dogged, bottomless will have always directly touched the American psyche

The fact that this is a nominally true story doesn't make it seem any less unlikely. Iñárritu is mythmaking here, and everything about the plot falls somewhere between an Old West tall tale and a lurid, wallowing two-fisted revenge story. Narratively, this is essentially Point Blank with longer guns and longer beards, or Kill Bill without the martial arts or constant film references. Or if you like, a North American The Count Of Monte Cristo, which was published just a decade after Glass' eventual death. The idea of sheer anger mobilizing a mutilated man back from a seemingly unsurvivable experience is a potent one, and stories of dogged, bottomless will have always directly touched the American psyche. But it's still a little hard not to chuckle a little at the shamelessness of the macho fantasy here, as Glass largely drops the Malickian exaltation and becomes a bloody, Mad Max-esque engine of savage vengeance.

The Revenant

Twentieth Century Fox

Iñárritu compensates for the inherent silliness of the premise by making the film more about the sensory experience than the story. The first film shot with the Arri Alexa 65mm, The Revenant is a showpiece for the digital camera's flexibility in shooting immense panoramas and intimate close-ups in breathtaking detail. Iñárritu has emphasized the extreme difficulty of the shoot, because of the frigid temperatures in his remote Canadian and Argentinean locations. And as with his previous film, the regrettably shallow, self-congratulatory Best Picture winner Birdman, he relies heavily on ultra-long, complicated takes requiring a great deal of coordination and planning. The early Arikara battle sequence is particularly impressive; it isn't a single shot, but it keeps cuts to a minimum, with the camera rushing to follow one fleeing trapper, then the native who kills him, then the man who kills his killer, and so forth.

It's a self-conscious, showy way of provoking emotional response, and the technical achievement is just as likely to distract from the story as it is to draw them in. But it's still mightily impressive. Iñárritu made the obvious choice of bringing in cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who DP'd Alfonso Cuaron's Children Of Men and Gravity, as well as Malick's The New World and The Tree Of Life. Lubezki makes the most of the new camera, working with natural light for an icy clarity, and capturing both a stunning depth of field and some overwhelmingly beautiful natural phenomena. Rushing floodwater pours across a forest floor, powdery snow dusts the air. His panoramic pans, taking in the vastness of the surroundings again and again, may give "pan-and-scan" a new, more positive meaning. The murderous cold of the Dakotas is evoked so vividly as to make audiences themselves flinch at the wind. The bear attack is just as effective: it's so visceral and graphic and shocking, that one aches sympathetically at each new blow or bite tearing Glass' body apart.

As with Pixar's recent release The Good Dinosaur, the American wilds (particularly the ferocious, tumbling river) are the real star of the movie. But the land wouldn't feel nearly as beautiful without the ugliness the cast brings to the conflict. The Revenant's focus on setting already makes it feel like a follow-up to Werner Herzog's classics Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. As in those two films, the theme is human audacity and human madness, and the setting is a brutally vast natural world that casually dwarfs its human inhabitants. In particular, a scene where Captain Henry and his men strap Glass' immobilized body to a travois and try to drag it up a steep, snow-slicked cliff recalls Fitzcarraldo in miniature.

The Revenant

Twentieth Century Fox

But Hardy's performance takes The Revenant deep into Aguirre territory, making him a strong contender against Klaus Kinski's Aguirre in the Worst Person To Take On A Road Trip competition. Fitzgerald is written as a selfish, amoral bastard, but Hardy does an impressive job of making him human — an abhorrent human, but still a believable one. Hardy infuses him with enough lonely, belligerent conviction that he comes across not just as a self-justifying coward, but a true sociopath. Fitzgerald honestly believes whatever line he's spouting at any given moment, and his entitlement and utter lack of empathy make every scene he's in unstable. But Hardy's performance makes him mesmerizing.

By comparison, DiCaprio has much more physical work to do, in a much less complex role. Barely speaking for most of the movie — and often talking in a native language when he does — he mostly alternates grim determination with stark horror, stumbling through scene after scene with a fixed glower. Given DiCaprio's long hunt for an Oscar, the Best Actor buzz he already has for this film was inevitable. But The Revenant suggests he should get a special award for sheer endurance more than for a nuanced performance.

Iñárritu doesn't entirely overcome his longtime issues with The Revenant. Among his films like Birdman, Babel, and 21 Grams, this one comes furthest in escaping his tendency toward facile, shallow conclusions, delivered with vast self-importance. The dialogue can be naked and obvious — that flashback metaphor about the strength of the storm-tossed tree gets repeated at least two times too many. But relatively little time is wasted on talk, and when Iñárritu lets Lubezki's images and Ryuichi Sakamoto's eerie score speak for him, any sense of pontificating falls away in the gravity of the world they capture. Still, it's worth debating what exactly the point of The Revenant is. Stripped of all its considerable craft, it's yet another basic betrayal-and-revenge story, the kind that's mostly satisfying because it indulges a fantasy. Malick's visually similar films always seem to reach for enlightenment and the ineffable; Herzog is obsessed with the infinite possibilities of human ambition. It's unclear whether Iñárritu has any broader philosophical agenda worthy of the craft he showcases here.

But while the style may outpace the substance, that doesn't make the style any less magnificent. And when it comes to sheer customer satisfaction, The Revenant checks nearly every box, up to and including the man vs. wild throwdown. It just makes a jarring, memorable statement about how often the wild is likely to win that uneven fight.