The Revenant

The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, here played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1822 as a scout for a fur trapping expedition into unexplored territory, Glass surprises a grizzly bear and her cubs. He kills the bear but is mauled badly. Not expected to live, he is left with three volunteers, John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, Jim Bridger, played by Will Poulter and Glass’ son by a Pawnee woman, Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck. They promise to stay with Glass until he dies and to give him a decent burial. But there are hostile Indians in the area and Fitzgerald gets nervous. While Bridger is away, he murders Hawk and hides the body. Then he convinces Bridger that the Indians are minutes away. They wrap Glass in the bear skin and put him in a shallow grave. Then they take his gun and supplies and report back to the expedition that he died.
But he didn’t. With a broken leg, festering open wounds, and no supplies or weapons, Glass stumbles and crawls his way back to civilization, looking to survive and looking for revenge on Fitzgerald. A lot has been written about this incident. There are even a couple of earlier movies and TV episodes. I’m tempted to call it one of the foundational stories of the western genre like the gunfight at the OK Corral or the Lincoln County war. But frankly I’d never heard of it before so it’s hard for me to think of it that way.
This grim material is ideally suited for the director and co-screenwriter Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose dark vision has informed many good films in the past few years. It is a stately film with long shots lingering over snow covered mountains and meandering riverbeds. Even in the chase scenes they cut to long panoramic shots that drain any momentum from the plot. Inarritu is too good a filmmaker for this to be a mistake. He is making a meditative revenge drama.
There is all kinds of visual symbolism in the film. Flowing water represents life, I guess. There are many shots of treetops swaying in the wind where the camera was set up on the ground, shooting straight up, echoing Glass’ wife relaying a Pawnee proverb about looking at the tops of the trees while knowing that the trunks are sound. In a flashback Glass holds his then young son, who has just been severely burned in a fire that took his wife, and says, “Just keep grabbing breaths.” So the sound of breathing permeates the soundtrack. There is also a theme of rebirth, of being a revenant, someone who comes back from the dead. At two points in the film he emerges from womblike conditions, once from a sweat lodge that a friendly Pawnee traveler makes him when he’s about to succumb to fever from his wounds and once from a dead horse he hollows out and crawls into to survive a blizzard.
No director is going to get a bad performance out of this cast. Inarritu guides them skillfully to great heights. DiCaprio gets a bad rap because he is a big movie star and people don’t like to believe that big movie stars can actually act. He can. This is a tremendous performance where he shows us things we’ve never seen from him before. He makes us feel every ounce of pain, both physical and psychological, that this character experiences.
Tom Hardy plays John Fitzgerald as self-serving amateur lawyer, always twisting events to his own advantage. He lies but his real damage is done in half-truths, faulty conclusions to fuzzily described events that only resemble what actually happened. As near as I can tell he never slips up in his frontier American accent.
I really can’t find anything to criticize about this film except for the fact that it didn’t really grab me. Maybe it was the pace, or the unpleasantness of the story. Revenge dramas are problematic in that it’s hard to sympathize with someone whose main objective is to kill someone else. Or it could be my deep suspicion that if I can understand symbolism without having to think about it too hard, it’s probably too heavy-handed.
Despite my grumbles this is an important film and well worth seeing for the performances and the scenery if nothing else.

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