During a fur-trading expedition in 1822 South Dakota, American explorer Hugh Glass was mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his party, who took his survival gear and fled when they feared an impending Native American attack.
Despite life-threatening injuries, including festering wounds and broken bones, Glass slowly crawled his way back to civilization, intent on taking revenge upon the men who abandoned him.
Glass’ story, which has become the thing of legend, has been recounted numerous times in popular media, most notably the 1971 film Man in the Wilderness (which starred Richard Harris as “Zachary Bass”) and Michael Punke’s 2002 novel The Revenant.
Punke’s book has been “partially” adapted for the new film that bears its name by Mark L. Smith and director Alejandro González Iñárritu, coming off an Oscar win for last year’s Birdman.
Only it isn’t much of an adaptation: Iñárritu takes the basic premise – Glass is mauled by a bear, abandoned, and sets out for revenge – and runs away with it, adding new characters (Glass has a son who features in the story here), shuffling up backstories, altering motivations, and changing key plot details.
The 1971 film was a riveting tale of survival, carefully charting just how Glass managed to survive in the wilderness and get from point A to B to C.
The 2015 movie, meanwhile, is an experience that removes the plot mechanics from the story and seems to drift from scene to scene with little continuity over the course of a 2.5-hour runtime. It’s a stark, meditative, grueling and uncompromising journey, for both the main character and the audience. It’s a Michael Bay movie as directed by Terrence Malick.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, who survives here not so much by survival skill as by grunting, groaning, and gritting his teeth: the more Glass suffers, the healthier he gets, and soon he’s able to crawl out of his grave, start walking, and set out to take revenge on those who wronged him.
Glass is rarely shown to use his wits: he doesn’t hunt, he just seems to stumble across his prey. The point of these scenes is not that the character is surviving, but that the actor is, sloshing through locales so frigid and starkly shot we can feel it in the audience, taking a bite out of a live fish or sinking his teeth into raw liver. This will probably earn the actor his first Oscar win, and he deserves it.
Tales of the harsh, unforgiving sets of The Revenant made press long before the film was finished. The shoot was called “a living Hell,” and some crew members apparently left the film because of it. But the utter realism of the conditions, and the frightening reality of what they meant to explorers in the early 19th century, come through in the final film and sell its hero’s journey.
And then a cartoon bear stumbles upon DiCaprio and throws him around the scene like ragdoll. Almost every other review of The Revenant has praised this scene for unflinching realism, and indeed, the rest of the audience I saw the movie with was captivated. For me, it’s a Roger Rabbit moment that I’m just going to have to chalk up to personal prejudice.
There’s no shortage of CGI in the rest of the film, either, which incorporates a lot of long takes during the action scenes that require digital trickery to accomplish spurts of violence. From the very first scene – a Saving Private Ryan-like attack on the frontiersmen by a Native American tribe – Iñárritu establishes his mastery of the technical elements.
Tom Hardy plays John Fitzgerald, the man responsible for leaving Glass for dead and the sole object of his revenge. Hardy is good, as always, but the characterization is too much of a one-dimensional villain for a film of this type; the logic behind Fitzgerald’s actions is thin at best, and the film is content to paint him as a simple bully.
Better detailed than either the hero or the villain are two supporting characters played by Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter. Gleeson is Captain Andrew Henry, leader of the expedition, who struggles with the decision about what to do with the immobile Glass. Eventually, he charges Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger (Poulter) to stay behind with the injured man until he dies, and give him a proper burial.
Both Henry and Bridger have difficult choices to make, and the kind of moral complexity that’s missing from the leading characters here (the final exchange between Glass and Fitzgerald, by the way, attempts to rectify this – and comes off as a total copout). Gleeson is especially good in a revelatory turn that came as a complete surprise to me, even after his solid work in Ex Machina.
The Revenant is a poor retelling of the fascinating true story of Hugh Glass, a completely un-faithful adaptation of its source novel (“based in part” on the novel The Revenant by Michael Punke, the opening credits read – and even that’s a stretch), and an inferior survival film next to Man in the Wilderness, which it resembles more than the Punke novel.
And yet it is impeccably made by a director at the very top of his craft, who exerts the kind of control over the film that we rarely see in a $100 million blockbuster. Story takes a backseat to tone and style and visceral, gut-punch filmmaking, immaculately designed and staged and breathtakingly shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. Melancholic riffs on the soundtrack by Ryûichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai perfectly enhance the visuals.
I took a lot of issues with The Revenant, but in the end it has a raw power that renders the experience unforgettable. We’re right down there in the muck with Hugh Glass, and I only wish the end result didn’t have to forsake the story to get us there.