I’m not sure I’ve ever in my life seen a movie with such a combination of raw beauty and even rawer brutality than Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant”. Written by Iñárritu with Mark L. Smith and based (in part) on the novel by Michael Punke, “The Revenant” is a mythology spun off the true story of a 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass (a 100% committed Leonardo Di Caprio) this tale of revenge, survival, and just possibly redemption simply reeks of authenticity–not historical accuracy, but rather the willingness on the part of the filmmakers to get inside Glass’s skin, to recreate the qualities of mind and body necessary to drag a shattered body through the snow in search of the man you need to kill.
Basically, Glass was the guide for a group of trappers traveling deep into the wilderness. Everything imaginable goes wrong, including the bear attack you’ve heard about. And yes, it is amazing, terrifying, and oddly beautiful.
Horribly wounded, his fellow woodsmen leave him for dead, in a stunning act of betrayal. While much of the story is (by necessity) fabricated, what follows, as Glass seeks life and redemption, is so real that it seems churlish to insist that real history would have been better. It is a MOVIE, not a documentary, and the cast and director so obviously exposed themselves to the elements (including -15 degree weather that drove some of the crew to quit), filming using only natural light, actors doing (most) of their own stunts, filming in chronological sequence (this has been done quite rarely, in films like Casablanca and Deliverance), and world-hopping to find the snow conditions necessary for filming.
Excruciatingly long, harrowing, violent, and mesmerizing. Di Caprio and his blood enemy (an occasionally incomprehensible Tom Hardy as the man who abandoned him) plunged so deeply into their roles that it is mind-boggling to think of “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “Legend” and realize these are the same guys.
For this cinematic version of Glass, his “Hero’s Journey” is, externally, one of survival. But internally one more important than mere fleshly existence. In order to preserve life, Glass becomes an animal, willing to do anything a wolf might do to survive. And the real question is not “will he live?” or even “will he get revenge?” but “what will be left of this man? Will he even be a human being by the time this ends?”
Those first questions are “what is true?” and they are gripping. But deeper is “who am I?” asked as “what is a human being?” and “what is he, what are WE?” and “how can we keep our souls in the midst of life’s crushing, numbing fight for survival?”
Each set of questions is important, and together they open the doorway to a deeper experience. This is superb filmmaking, and if “The Revenant” (a term for a spirit returned from the dead) wins “Best Picture” I won’t be surprised or displeased in the slightest. It is not a perfect film–nothing is. But I think it is a true film, and that is no small thing. Iñárritu and his cast went through hell to create this work of art, and emerged with a sliver of heaven. It earns a solid “A”.