The winner of this year’s Golden Globe award for best motion picture and best director is The Revenant. The word “revenant” means “one who has returned; especially one who has returned from the dead.” I would guess that virtually no one crowding into theaters this past weekend had any idea of that, unless they bothered to look it up in a dictionary before attending the film; nevertheless, the title is supremely appropriate for Iñárritu’s story, since the word came into English in the early 19th century from the French. In The Revenant, Iñárritu’s current follow-up to his Oscar-winning effort in last year’s Birdman, the protagonist, trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left for dead by his companions after being mauled by a grizzly in the American western wilderness of 1823, but survives and manages to endure long enough to track down those who left him. And yes, he also meets some French trappers—as it turns out, to their dismay.
This is not the first time the legend of the mountain-man Glass has been retold. It first came to public attention in 1915 in John Neihardt’s “Song of Hugh Glass,” a narrative poem in Neihardt’s Cycle of the West. Neidhardt, best-known for his Black Elk Speaks, was an amateur ethnographer interested in passing on the old legends. The tale was told again with more historical accuracy in the 1939 history of the American West called The Oregon Trail. Frederick Manfred’s 1954 novel Lord Grizzly, nominated for a National Book Award, brought the story of Glass’s ordeal to the attention of the wider public. Manfred’s book, true to history, locates the grizzly attack at a spot some 13 miles south of present-day Lemon, South Dakota, and Glass subsequently dragged himself 200 miles to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River near modern-day Chamberlain, South Dakota. In 1971, Richard Harris and John Huston starred in a film version of the story, Man in the Wilderness, taking a good deal of liberties with the story and renaming the main character “Bass.” Iñárritu takes the essential plot of his film from the more recent fictionalized account by Michael Punke: The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge (2002).
Yet there is no doubt, after the huge crowds that flocked to see DiCaprio this weekend, that Iñárritu’s film has done the most to bring Glass’s old legend into public consciousness. But Iñárritu could not resist the temptation to add some new details to his version. In the film, Glass was married to a Pawnee woman at one time, and has a son from that marriage. We learn that Glass had killed an American officer in order to keep his young son safe, after the same soldiers had apparently killed his wife. The story of revenge thus takes on another nuance, since Glass endures his long ordeal to find those who left him to die not only to avenge what they did to him, but to avenge his son’s death.
The Arikawa band that attacks the American traders at the beginning of the film, killing some three quarters of the original group, is also seeking revenge: It is not simply that they resent the Americans and the French encroachment on their lands and resources. In the Iñárritu version the chief’s daughter has been kidnaped by white men and he is trying to get her back. Thus the film becomes a long meditation on the lengths that sentient creatures will go to in order to protect their offspring: both Glass and Elk Dog (Duane Howard), the Arikawa chief, are motivated by their emotional bonds with their children. But the film begins with a mother grizzly mauling Glass in order to protect her two cubs. It’s all about parent and children: even the lone Pawnee warrior that Glass comes across in his long odyssey has lost his children. But he is going home: Revenge, he says in what must be for Iñárritu a major thematic statement, is in God’s hands.
But if that’s the point of the movie, it sure doesn’t seem like it. There’s no question that the desire to confront John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the man responsible for abandoning him and for the death of his son, is what chiefly drives Glass over those interminable 200 miles. What keeps him going, what keeps Elk Dog on his own quest, what inspired the grizzly to attack Glass in the first place, is that instinctive drive to protect the child, and in a film set in the most brutal Darwinian milieu, the point the film really makes is that human beings are subject to the same animal instincts as other beasts—and that only the fittest will survive.
There are some good things in this film. DiCaprio, winner of Sunday’s Golden Globe as best actor, is a shoe-in for another Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Glass. Most remarkable is the long central part of the movie in which, his throat damaged by the bear attack, he crawls, limps, rides and creeps hundreds of miles, against seemingly impossible odds and through virtually hopeless scenarios (washed down a waterfall, jumping with his horse over a cliff) and goes through an entire range of emotions using only his eyes and a few well-placed grunts. It is truly a tour de force and DiCaprio may well walk away with the Academy Award—in part for this role, and in part for an impressive series of performances over the past several years (The Aviator, The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Inception, The Great Gatsby, Wolf of Wall Street).
But DiCaprio is not always the only one on screen, and when he shares the screen with Hardy, the villain often steals the scene. Hardy disappears into his role of the brutal completely self-centered and unrepentant Fitzgerald, a man who will do anything to further his own ends and will perform any act, no matter how ruthless or despicable, and still justify it in his own mind. Will Poulter, who plays the young, awkward, well-intentioned but bullied and coerced James Bridger, forced by the older and dominant Fitzgerald to leave Glass when he believes the Arikawa are about to attack them again (the historical Bridger went on to become a legendary mountain man in his own right). And Domhnall Gleeson, who seems to be in just about every other movie coming out of Hollywood this winter, is believable and sympathetic as Captain Andrew Henry, the guy who is nominally, but somewhat timidly, in charge of the original expedition.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s contribution to the film is also faultless. The winner of the last two Oscars for Cinematography could certainly win another one this year. The film was clearly (as anyone who has ever lived there knows) not shot in South Dakota; the vast and beautiful landscapes of the film were shot in the Rockies of Alberta and Montana, and, yes, the Andes of Argentina, and were all shot in natural light. There are stunning scenes of incredible beauty—for instance, when Glass comes unexpectedly upon a large herd of buffalo being attacked by wolves. There are also scenes of graphic brutality, like the bear attack itself. Like Lubezki’s world-changing opening shot from Gravity, this film opens with a long continuous shot of the Arikawa attack on the American encampment that follows character after character from their killing of an enemy to the next enemy’s murder of them—and on and on. Those first twenty minutes of the film are a remarkable experience.
But the scenery can only take you so far. The problem with a film that is an endurance test for its protagonist is that it also becomes an endurance test for its audience, and I have to say that by the time we were approaching the end of the second hour of this 156-minute movie, I was ready to scream if I had to see one more mountain, river, or snowy plain that the monomaniacal Glass had to cross. The story, while sounding very exciting, is really one long slog that can only reach a climax when Glass has found Fitzgerald, and by then, it’s hard to still care all that much.
Aside from the incredible tedium of the whole central portion of the film, there is no denying the extreme and sometimes sickening violence of the film. Glass lives and survives in a brutal world, and there is no shrinking from the stark reality of that world. I have noticed that among people I know who have seen this film, most of the men seemed to like it, but most of the women did not, and some of them even walked out, mainly because of the violence. So let me caution you: if you do go to this film, be prepared for the violence. But let me give you this advice: if you have to go to a movie with a lot of violence this season, I would recommend The Hateful Eight over The Revenant: it’s also beautifully filmed, it’s also a western, it’s also got an incredible amount of violence, but it’s got characters who talk to each other and play off one another, and dang it, it’s entertaining. I think you’ll have a better time.
I give this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.