Early in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s survival saga The Revenant, I gasped “Bloody hell!,” meaning both “What an amazing filmmaker!” and “Get me out of here!” The movie is visceral with a side of viscera. The Hollywood columnist who wrote that it was too “unflinchingly brutal” for women was justly ridiculed, but he did pick up on something that’s there: Watching it is meant to be a test of a certain kind of “manliness.”
From Amores Perros to last year’s award-winning Birdman, Iñárritu has labored to prove that he’s an artist who will not flinch, and now he’s into nervy, swervy single takes (or expert simulations thereof) to intensify your fight-or-flight instincts. He has found a hero ripe for mangling in Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a real 19th-century explorer and trapper who became famous for surviving an 1823 grizzly attack and abandonment by two members of his expedition tasked to stay with him (they had thought he was a goner). Glass staggered 200 miles over six weeks to inform them of their misperception and was evidently pissed off. But Iñárritu ups the vengeance stakes exponentially, piling primal horror upon primal horror. He’s out to create a frontier myth of biblical proportions.
The Revenant opens with arty flashbacks to an attack on a Pawnee village, follows with a soupçon of Native American mysticism, and goes in for the kill with an attack on a group of trappers by the Arikara tribe (dubbed the “Ree”). The “one-shot” ballet of butchery begins with an arrow bisecting a man’s throat — thock! — and then gets more ferocious, the camera spinning, tilting toward treetops, and only just veering clear of arterial spray. This is the sort of sequence in which every time the camera moves close to someone, you mentally prepare for a projectile to zoom in from offscreen and tear a path through his kidney. It’s almost a relief when the Ree get off their horses and start scalping people — at least you get a heads up, so to speak.
But the movie’s showstopper is the “one-shot” mauling of the hero by that mama grizzly, who takes a break to check on her cubs before lumbering back for more ripping and chewing. I’ve seen thousands of heroes thrown about by thousands of giant monsters, and this throwing-about has no equal. (I don’t care how it was done — I’d like to keep it a mystery.) Now the bear is deep in the frame, now so close that her snout mists the lens (nice touch!), her great body rippling with a terrible kind of beauty as she takes her time with her prey — who’s busy trying to reach a musket and insert a bullet with bloodied fingers, though you know a single bullet will only make the mammoth creature madder. For Iñárritu, editing would offer too much existential relief: You have to live through it in “real time.” Every damn second of it.
The bulk of the film features the shattered Glass dragging himself across mile after mile of barren tundra, somehow staying alive despite roaming Ree, freezing temperatures, and his own festering infections, driven by the need for revenge against a trapper named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who took something precious from him. Just when you think the ordeal can’t last much longer, Glass rounds another bend, the gray wilderness stretches into the horizon, and you know you’re in for at least five more minutes of Leo lurching and grunting. Then he comes to the next bend. Many artists make a point of compressing time, going from point A to point D to point H while preserving the illusion of fluidity. Iñárritu is an A-to-B man.
It should be said that there is more than survival at stake. Iñárritu has given his hero a fictional teenage Pawnee son named Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), whose mother was murdered by white soldiers and whose mistreatment at the hands of Fitzgerald Glass is too incapacitated to stop. The bond with Hawk gives Glass a sort of guest-access pass to the Pawnee spirit world, which enables Iñárritu to do what he does worst: floating apparitions, messages from beyond, magic realism so clunky that it would embarrass a first-year film student. He’s great with the rough textures of the material world; he’s far too literal-minded for the higher realm.
In my press notes, Iñárritu says, “Glass’s story asks the questions: Who are we when we are completely stripped of everything? What are we made of and what are we capable of?” I would answer that some of us are capable of crawling a long way with grievous wounds while others are not. Me, probably not. Louis Zamperini from Unbroken, certainly. The guy played by James Franco who sawed off his own arm, obviously. Matt Damon “scienc[ing] the shit out of” something on Mars, maybe, with help from the global village on Earth. Glass does some self-surgery (though he doesn’t treat himself with maggots, as the real man reportedly did), falls in with a helpful Native American, wanders into a ruined church for the inevitable glimpse of Jesus suffering amid the inhumanity, and shoots some people. But mostly he limps and grunts. Stripped of everything, he’s not that interesting.
How is DiCaprio? Not much to look at when half-dead but fine when fighting or falling. Hardy’s character — he’s partially scalped, which helps him justify looking out for No. 1 — is more fun, but the actor’s face is once again half hidden, this time by a heavy beard, and his usual muddy diction creates a further layer of distance. Will Poulter has a few anguished moments as the young guy forced to watch Fitzgerald throw Glass in a hole, and Domhnall Gleeson supplies some clear-eyed decency as a captain. A subplot that features a Ree warrior searching for his daughter — likely kidnapped by vile French pig-dogs — feels shoehorned in. I won’t spoil the climax, although it’s spoiled anyway by a bogus, have-it-morally-both-ways vengeance.
I think The Revenant is, on the whole, pain without gain, but it’s certainly a tour de force — literally, a feat of strength. DiCaprio, Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubekzi, and their collaborators hauled themselves through the Canadian Rockies and deserve what respect one can muster, although their artistry is finite, a test of will and pyrotechnics and, yes, traditional masculinity instead of a search for what illuminates man’s inhumanity to man. In some ways, I prefer Quentin Tarantino’s gleeful nihilism to Iñárritu’s holy splatter — at least Tarantino knows how silly he is.
The Revenant. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Fox. R.
*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.