Be warned: The Revenant is not for the faint of heart. It’s gritty, grisly, and gruesome, and the violence is jarring since the bloody scenes take place against the beautiful, pristine, and tranquil scenery in the Canadian wilderness (substituting for the Louisiana Purchase frontier, circa 1823). Within the first few minutes of the film, we witness a devastating battle between a group of white mountain men, trappers killing animals for their pelts, and the Native American Arikara tribe, the chief hunting for his kidnapped daughter.
Although 33 of the hunters are slaughtered, the survivors escape down the river in a decrepit wooden boat. Even after they safely arrive on land, there’s no time to breathe a sigh of relief. Hugh Glass (a sure Oscar-winning performance by Leonardo DiCaprio), who is leading the expedition, has two bear cubs in his sights when he’s attacked by the protective mama bear. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who won the Oscar last year for Birdman, has said that he did meticulous research about bear attacks before filming began. Whatever he learned certainly resulted in a realistic reenactment. (He has refrained from actually describing how the scene was staged, comparing it to a magic trick.) The attack is no brief encounter, but one that goes on and on, the bear lumbering off after her first swipes at Glass, only to return for another go round. Glass is left clinging to life. (And we’re left clinging to our seats.)
Glass was married to a Pawnee woman (Grace Dove) who was killed by white troops. (In several dream sequences, Glass’s wife appears to him, beckoning him to follow.) Their son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), is on the expedition with Glass and the two communicate in Pawnee, subtitles relaying the conversations. (This film is heavy on action, light on dialogue. When the hunters do speak, they often mumble making it a struggle to follow what’s being said.)
Glass’s injuries jeopardize the safety of the entire group. The men begin by carrying Glass on a makeshift stretcher, but the rugged terrain impedes their progress. One of the trappers, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), votes for killing Glass. The group’s leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who has formed a bond with Glass, can’t bring himself to do the deed. Instead, he asks for volunteers to stay behind with the two young men – Hawk and a young trapper, Bridger (Will Poulter) – until Glass dies and is given a proper burial. Fitzgerald volunteers after being promised additional shares from the sales of the pelts.
Fitzgerald, of course, is not to be trusted and soon after the other men leave, he kills Hawk, then buries Glass alive. While Bridger doesn’t know that Hawk is dead, he does witness Glass’s fate. He pleads with Fitzgerald to honor the commitment they made to Henry, but unwilling to stay behind on his own, he places his water canteen near Glass and leaves.
We know that Glass will live (the film is based on a true story) to exact revenge for the death of his son. Witnessing how he survives, however, makes up the remainder of the film. At times, the film resembles any number of reality shows that pit humans against nature. Glass catches a fish and eats it raw. When he happens upon a Native American feasting on raw buffalo meat, he eagerly takes hold of the liver and dives in. (In an interview, Iñárritu said he gave DiCaprio a choice between eating a gelatinous substitute or the real thing. Leo chose the real thing.)
Filming, which also included a stop in Ushuaia, a port at the southern tip of Argentina, took nine months and was so grueling, Iñárritu told the New York Times, that ten people were either fired or quit. For his part, DiCaprio said playing Glass was the most physical role he has ever tackled. The role is also one where DiCaprio’s good looks are never a factor. With his face covered with dirt, his greasy hair hanging down, and swathed in filthy animal skins, he becomes Glass, evoking memories of early explorers who risked everything to seek their fortunes on the American frontier. Also unrecognizable is Hardy as Fitzgerald. The final battle between the two does not disappoint.
The Revenant opens nationwide January 8, 2016.