Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” is a visceral, immersive, man-against-the-wilderness tale with full metaphysical reverb: Jack London by way of Terrence Malick. It’s almost too much — too long, too brutal, too highflown — but there is a glorious history of overreach at the cinema, from Erich von Stroheim to Francis Ford Coppola, which has fallen into sad decline. Technically, our directors have never been better — you can’t fault Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams for ingenuity or spectacle. Nor can anyone doubt the wormy, forensic allure of a David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky film. But our most inventive cinema is pulled off in the shadows, hidden well away from the big budgets and studio beancounters. Even the arthouse lacks risk: anyone can fail in front of a small audience. What we’ve been missing is a mad genius or two, working in full public view and with the backing and resources of a studio, towards a personal vision that could combust at any point — auteur as Icarus, movie as meteor.
Not anymore. At its heart, “The Revenant” is a bare-bones tale of revenge, adapted from a novel by Michael Punke about a 19th-century fur trapper named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). After an attack by a grizzly bear leaves him close to death, Glass is abandoned in a shallow grave by a member of his own hunting team, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) – a stunning act of betrayal compounded by Fitzgerald’s murder of Glass’s son as he lies there helpless. The bear attack itself is horrifically well done. The animal stops at one point to lick Glass’s face, like a dog slobbering over a bone, before wandering off for a few minutes – much as you might between courses, the better to savour what is to come. Left for dead by his companions, Glass is barely able to walk, let alone wreak revenge. Gratefully scooping water from a stream into his parched mouth, he finds it exiting his throat through the bear’s lacerations. His solution to this lapse in table manners? To pour buckshot into the wound and set light to it, sealing it with an improvised fireworks display.
The film is not for the faint of heart. Iñárritu has many more astonishments in store: axes through skulls and arrows through eyes, a horse shot in the chest and another plunging over a ravine, the camera following it to observe the swaying branches of the snow-laden fir tree below. There is more than enough here to admit Iñárritu to the school of cinematic neo-brutalists like Aronofsky, Fincher and Steve McQueen – directors who believe, rightly or wrongly, that the only way to hold their own against the special effects of Hollywood blockbusters is to make the human body their battleground, their spectacle. It is telling that Glass’s response to finding his horse mangled is to scoop out its guts and make a snow-storm shelter for himself inside its still steaming ribcage, a trick last seen performed by Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back”. As “Birdman” showed, Iñárritu outwits the Hollywood devil not with purse-lipped silence, but by stealing its tunes and bringing them off with more brio.
What stops this bodily mangling from gratuity is Iñárritu’s equally emphatic insistence on the spirits trapped inside those bodies. The swaying trees are the giveaway: again and again we return to a shot of the forest viewed from the ground up, the treetops brushing the sky like souls leaving bodies. The film peels your senses but its view is resolutely heavenward. We get Malickian flashbacks to Glass’s dead wife, as well as to his recently deceased son. While I’m no fan of flashbacks, these pack dramatic weight: Glass is someone for whom memories are simply a way of staying alive. “I’m right here,” whispers his son. “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight.” That’s what the film is about: human breath as animating force, the sucking of air into grateful lungs. It’s a last-gasp epic. The cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who also worked on “Birdman”, uses the widest-angle lens possible, bulging the frame slightly. The effect is as transfixing as an Ansel Adams photograph, beautiful but never merely so, rendering a wilderness as lethal as it is lovely.
What “The Revenant” is not is a Western, if by that we mean a film that cleaves to the old myths of cowboys, Indians, saloons and shootouts. In Iñárritu’s film, lines of loyalty cut through tribal lines, as they did in Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans”. “Is it true you killed an officer?” someone asks Glass near the end. “I was just trying to kill a man who was trying to kill my son,” he replies, in one of his few lines of dialogue. Largely silent, DiCaprio grunts and heaves his way through the wilderness, bearing the film on his back like Sisyphus, his performance as much a feat of physical endurance as acting. But then DiCaprio is more than just Iñárritu’s star. He’s his creative partner and co-conspirator — his sacrificial body.
The film’s grandness interferes with its design at only one point: the end. By then, Iñárritu has rather lost interest in anything so base as revenge, such is the metaphysical force to be gleaned from his tale. He’s a funny mixture of the visceral and the transcendental, thug and poet — another way of saying “film director”. People with an animus against “Birdman” because it pipped “Boyhood” to the Oscar need to get over it quickly. “The Revenant” confirms him as the most exciting director working in Hollywood today.
The Revenant Released on December 25th in America and January 15th in Britain