Wintry Discontent: The Revenant

Alejandro G. IIñárritu may have done well just getting out of the house. Whereas his last film (Birdman) fixes on the stuffy indoor mania of Broadway stage production, this time he spins the camera outward, to the vast and austere winter, where its unyielding brutality takes hold.

The Revenant follows the improbable survival of Hugh Glass, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, a frontiersman who defies a series of gruesome threats to his life. We first see Glass as a trapper, skinning animals for pelts along with his son Hawk of mixed-Native-American race. At the outset this distinguishes Glass from the rest of his peers, a barbarous and uncouth group of men — Mr. IIñárritu makes sure to show several urinating openly — each of whom thinks he has the best idea for their safety. When their camp comes under ambush from hostile natives and the survivors flee, Glass emerges as the authority given his knowledge of the land and its constituents. But the plan falls apart once Glass is viciously mauled by a grizzly bear and wounded to the point of incapacity, his throat gashed so he cannot speak.

The rest of the sprawling film sends Glass further and further down its bleak pit of anguish, leaving him with little but his wits and faithfulness to overcome the obstacles. He witnesses the murder of his son at the hands of a fellow trapper named John Fitzgerald, played by a brutish Tom Hardy, though he can’t confront him due to his injuries. Thereafter he drags himself across the frozen Dakota tundra, forages for shrubs, picks marrow from dead animal carcasses, and escapes continued attacks from native combatants. When death appears all but certain, Glass comes to rely on a mantra from his slain Pawnee wife — “the wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots” — that guides his winding path back to the very people who left him for dead.

The sheer commitment on the part of Mr. IIñárritu, and indeed Mr. DiCaprio, is commendable. This is a period piece in every sense of the term. Stunning landscapes and crackling natural sounds leave you shivering right along with the characters forced to endure such conditions. Close handheld tracking shots, which IIñárritu honed in Birdman, transport you straight into Glass’ plight.

And DiCaprio himself may never put forward a grittier performance. Beyond the beard and wild-eyed fulminations, he commands a certain selfless sympathy through Glass. Where in the past we’ve seen Leo’s persona bleed into his characters, perhaps in The Wolf of Wall Street most of all, this time he evokes a broader, more humane appeal. It’s plain that he’s the hero of this story, and it succeeds to the degree in which DiCaprio carries it. In the end IIñárritu may also have been smart to rob DiCaprio of his speech, which can sound stiff and haughty elsewhere, amplifying the role’s physicality.

DiCaprio wouldn’t have gotten far without a worthy adversary, and with Fitzgerald, Mr. Hardy cements his place as Hollywood’s most reliable villain. Fitzgerald hisses, he connives, he clings to his twisted morals straight to the bitter end. He embodies, in a number of not-so-subtle ways, the film’s godlessness. (He even goes so far as to offer his thoughts on the futility of religion — in the form of a squirrel — while persuading a younger group member to rationalize their abandonment of Glass.) In a film with such a strict sense of scruples, Fitzgerald carries the heavy burden of evil, a foil to the morals displayed by Glass, Captain Henry, and the natives.

Morality does in fact play a big role in this script, written by IIñárritu and Mark L. Smith, submitting strong statements about frontier order. The Revenant can in many ways be read as a scathing critique of early American expansion — the natives are portrayed in a far more flattering light than the Americans or the French — and this becomes the film’s most searing message. At its worst, though, the story can come off as ironically insular. It takes care to circle every narrative square, down to the canteen that leads to Glass’ discovery and tribe leader’s daughter whom Glass frees, allowing him to escape with his life in the final scene. In a wilderness so vast-seeming, the same characters encounter one another over and over again, replaying the same cycles of cruelty.

But suffering, it appears, is having a moment in Hollywood right now. You don’t have to look further than films like Beasts of No Nation and 12 Years A Slave to observe audiences’ insatiable appetites for misery — or “torture porn,” to use an indelicate term. There’s no end to the suffering until there is something approaching hope, though it does force you to question at what cost.

Regardless, the formula is working for serious filmmaking right now. And with The Revenant, IIñárritu has elevated the genre, if you want to call it one, advancing his name as a director of uncompromised vision.