Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Run time: 2 hours 36 minutes
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
If The Revenant feels strangely familiar as it slowly unspools its grim tale of bear mauling, murder and revenge, you probably watched Richard Harris star in Man in the Wilderness back in 1971. The Revenant is pretty much the same film, but with a few embellishments — and 60 extra minutes of unrelenting wretched misery.
Leonardo DiCaprio grunts, moans, crawls and mutters his way through this semi-true story of Hugh Glass, an actual American frontiersman. It's 1823 as the film begins, and the taciturn Glass is leading a fur-trading expedition along the Missouri River, using his half-breed teenage son (Forrest Goodluck) as a scout. That son, a fictional addition to Glass's oft-told tale, allows triple Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu to fold into his narrative the Native Americans' experience of the white man's arrival on their lands.
The main story, however, stays true to the fact-based legend: First, warriors of the Arikara tribe stormed the expedition's camp, nearly massacring an entire company of soldiers led by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Then, as the survivors of the brutal raid struggled to return to the protection of their faraway Army fort, Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear trying to protect its cubs.
If things seemed bad before (and believe me, they were), that tipping point propels the rest of the action into a world of hurt — seemingly endless hurt. Callously left to die by his compadres, Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald (an impressively unrecognizable Tom Hardy), Glass miraculously scrabbles and limps his way back to civilization — and certain revenge. Why those crusty desperadoes would have left him alive in the wilderness may make you wish a more believable plotline ran through this tale.
As summer gives way to frigid winter in the forest primeval, the visual landscapes of all 156 minutes of The Revenant take our breath away. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki proves his virtuosity with a camera once again (he already has two Oscars). The sound design is compelling, too, especially considering that we spend countless moments with Glass alone in his misery, dragging himself across an unforgiving terrain with no chance for dialogue. Somebody get this man a Wilson volleyball!
If it sounds like The Revenant is a bit of a beautiful slog, it is. It's a filthy, bloody, down and dirty look at how one man survived human treachery and nature's worst, fueled by nothing more than his desire to stay alive and exact frontier justice. Stronger hands in the cutting room and at the keyboard might have made this a western for the ages, but sadly that's not quite the film Iñárritu has presented to the world.
Jenny Peters is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist.