Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” is a reality-based epic about mountain man Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who survived almost certain death in the Old West to avenge himself against the trapper who left him to die in the Rockies. Since the trapper, John Fitzgerald, is played by Tom Hardy, you know Glass has his work cut out for him.
The film, co-written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, opens with an attack by the Sioux on the hunting party that includes Glass and Fitzgerald. Iñárritu and his whiz-bang cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (they collaborated on “Birdman”) make the audience feel like we, too, are under siege. The arrows smash and zing with frightening force. Iñárritu is setting the stage for what is to come: almost nonstop graphic violence.
Glass is embedded with the trappers because he has lived with Native Americans and knows their ways. His murdered wife was Pawnee and their son is now serving with him. The Native American connection makes him immediately suspect with Fitzgerald, who is pretty much paranoid about everything anyway.
The film’s most gruesome set piece is a mama bear attack on Glass, which leaves him so mauled and near-death that he can no longer continue on. Fitzgerald is in charge of looking after him until help arrives – and you know what that means.
The attack is filmed with such up-close realism that most people will want to look away. At the very least, it will discourage anybody from taking hikes in the Rockies without the protection of a full cavalry. I suppose the scene is necessary in that it underscores the extent of Glass’s wounds and his achievement in overcoming them as he hauls himself inch by inch to the far-away fort where the expedition is garrisoned and Fitzgerald awaits.
But the film’s ultra-violent catalogue of horrors, of which this scene is only the most startling, is a case of overkill. There’s a sadistic edge to this movie that crosses the line. (One of its lighter moments is when Glass, for warmth, crawls inside the carcass of a horse, which he conveniently hollows out for us. You might want to have dinner before you see “The Revenant.” Or better yet, skip dinner altogether.)
DiCaprio has by now shucked his hyperyouthfulness and aged into someone who can convincingly play a mountain man complete with shaggy beard. (There was a time not so long ago when it wasn’t clear if he was old enough to shave.) Still, his Glass is a fragile stick figure amid the rugged, snow-capped terrain, and one fears for him in a way one doesn’t for Fitzgerald, whose granitic frame might as well be carved out of the Rockies.
What “The Revenant” attempts but fails to do is create a larger vision from all this survivalist mayhem. It’s a useful how-to guide for how to stay alive after a bear attack – or a human attack, for that matter – but it doesn’t soar. It crawls. Grade: B- (Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language, and brief nudity.)