“The Revenant” is a gritty little B-western that, for reasons unclear, has been pumped up into an epic of brutalist art cinema. At the center is a plot as sturdy as it is time-worn: a man gets left for dead and comes back to exact vengeance on his betrayers. Yet the acres of beautiful hot air that surround this storyline, courtesy of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, star Leonardo DiCaprio, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, never quite elevate the movie to the level of myth they’re aiming for.
At times, though, they come close. DiCaprio may get put through bloody hell, but on a big screen “The Revenant” is heaven, with Lubezki’s camera painting the American West as a rapturous primeval proving ground. (The film was shot in Montana, the Canadian Rockies, and Argentina.) It also dramatizes a piece of history the movies rarely bother with: the struggles and endurance of the “mountain men,” fur trappers who were among the first Americans to push the frontier west during the 1820s.
So, yes, there really was a Hugh Glass (the character played by DiCaprio), and according to the legend he was, in fact, mauled by a bear and left to die by his companions, whereupon he crawled back to civilization after undergoing unimaginable privations. For anyone who grew up reading Bernard DeVoto’s “Across the Wide Missouri” and other popular histories of America’s pioneering burly men, the movie’s a rarity and a treat. (The story was filmed once before, actually, as 1971’s “Man in the Wilderness.” It starred Richard Harris during his macho/lunatic “Man-Called-Horse” phase as Zachary Bass.)
Because this is the movies and because this is Iñárritu — who was last seen torturing Michael Keaton in the Oscar-winning “Birdman” — “The Revenant” imagines those unimaginable privations in horrifying detail and with breathtaking production design. The film opens with the squad of trappers led by stalwart Captain Andrew Henry (the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson) attacked at their riverfront encampment by an army of Arikara warriors under Elk Dog (Duane Howard). A butcher’s ballet, the sequence is a single-shot tour de force that intertwines precise ethno-historical accuracy with unrelenting daisy chains of murder.
Later, after Glass has plummeted off a cliff while fleeing from the “Rees,” he guts his horse, pulls out the entrails, and crawls inside the makeshift womb for a warm night’s sleep. The underlying conceit is that “The Revenant” is pitilessly savage because so was life for these men on the edge of civilization, and that’s fair even when the filmmakers are prettifying their carnage with widescreen visual abandon.
Anyway, Iñárritu just sees things freshly. The bear attack that comes early in the film starts casually, Glass hunting in a forest, noticing two cubs to his right and then, to his left, the charging form of a mama grizzly. The dreadful mauling that ensues isn’t sensationalized via action-movie jump cuts but viewed head-on with dispassionate curiosity, as though this were a nature documentary that just happened to feature a human being as prey.
DiCaprio’s performance is being talked about as an Oscar-season bell-ringer, but it’s more endurance test than nuanced portraiture. (For my money, he should have won for Jay Gatsby two years ago.) Glass is mostly wordless, often communicating in gasps and grunts. The power of the performance is really in its impotence. Glass, in the script’s invention, has lost a Pawnee wife (Grace Dove) and a child to the US Army years earlier — cue many mystical, overwrought flashbacks — and he’s fiercely protective of his surviving teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). To express that protectiveness while being unable to do anything about it provides some of the most emotionally wrenching moments in “The Revenant.”
Still, it’s hard to make much of an impression when Tom Hardy is standing right next to you stealing a movie. The shape-shifting British actor plays John Fitzgerald, a hulk of a trapper who considers the injured Glass a drag on the bottom line, not to mention a softy when it comes to Native American relations. Fitzgerald has lost part of his scalp to the Rees and Hardy seems to have lost part of his humanity; the character speaks in a mesmerizing, wild-eyed garble. He says things like “Ahm trahnta tell yuh is we ginna lose thyese pyelts,” which roughly translates to “Look lively, lads, lest we misplace these furs for which we’ve worked so hard these many months.”
Will Poulter (“We’re the Millers,” “Son of Rambow”) is also very good as a young Jim Bridger, who would go on to form his own mountain-man legend in the coming decades but who here is no match for the feral Fitzgerald. For all that, “The Revenant” wears out its welcome late in its second hour, somewhere after Glass has witnessed a herd of buffalo attacked by wolves — a wild, poetic twilight vision — and before a harrowing sequence involving the Arikara chief’s kidnapped daughter (Melaw Nakehk’o) and a band of nasty French trappers. Whatever you think of the Americans in this movie, by the way, the French are much worse.
But for all its anthropological niceties, Iñárritu’s vision of Native Americans traffics in the same noble-savage clichés that render movies like “Dances With Wolves” and “Little Big Man” the regretful fantasies of conquerors. “The Revenant” ultimately falls into the age-old trap of Self-Important Cinema, inflating scenes with visual and chronological space rather than filling those spaces with interesting storytelling.
By the time we get to the final showdown between the man who wouldn’t die and the man who thought he already killed him, the momentum has been lost and the scene feels smallish and anti-climactic. Iñárritu has his eye so firmly on the myths of America that he loses sight of the men who made them. But he’s hardly the first person to do that.
★ ★ ★
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, based on a novel by Michael Punke. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 156 minutes. R (strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language, and brief nudity).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
A previous version of the photo caption misidentified the actor. It is Tom Hardy playing John Fitzgerald.