Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu corralled a vast team of artists through multiple tundras around the globe, risking mutiny of crew and embarrassment of failure to examine the unforgiving landscape of an American frontier circa 1823. Since wrapping that hell of a shoot, stories of freezing cold and the cast who braved it have gained infamy, with Inarritu himself bearing criticism for the dangerous folly of a risky production. The resulting film may prove him a madman and a mastermind. “The Revenant” is a brutal epic, a cathartic revenge saga, and a watershed achievement for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski.
Leonardo Dicaprio is soulfully committed as fur trapper Hugh Glass, the mountain man of history who would endure a grisly attack by a mother grizzly bear and crawl for miles to exact retribution on those who left him for dead, namely John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a pelt seller and quasi-white supremacist. Operating mostly in colloquial silence, forced to convey so much with only two eyes and the rigorous physical requirements on demand, Dicaprio has never been more game for the wringer as Glass hobbles through subzero waters and treacherous territories. His Glass is an isolationist, a man at odds with westward expansion and yet inexorably linked to it. He’s the widower of a Pawnee beauty and the father of a Pawnee son (Forrest Goodluck), both murdered by the indiscriminate blade of capitalist forces. And despite his outer conflicts with the Arikara, a tribe of indigenous people who have learned to judge every white man with an arrow, Glass finds himself on a parallel journey alongside their chief (Anthony Starlight), a warrior on his own quest for revenge.
Hardy is uncomfortably magnetic as the greedy Fitzgerald, a man who’s made a living of killing, be it animals or “injuns,” and someone shaped by the wild, by a close call with an Arikara scalpel, and by his father’s low regard for God, and nature for that matter. He doesn’t see the forest for the trees. He just sees wood. Having recently toiled in the margins of a behemoth like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and a bespoke romance like “Brooklyn,” Domnhall Gleeson finally has something to do as the honorable leader of their hunting party, a military captain with a rich daddy and a strict code of ethics. Former maze runner Will Poulter is surprisingly poignant as the youngest trapper and reluctant party to the pivotal betrayal. He’s just a boy with a conscience, laboring under men who lost theirs a long time ago. He’s grown up believing the world is good to you if you’re good to it, an illusion shattered by the harsh realities of life on the range.
As Inarritu tells it, the story of Hugh Glass occurs at a turning point for mankind, when our fate to mine the land for our own comfort became inevitable. Surrounded by polar temperatures and polarized enemies, these frontiersmen stand at the precipice of a new world, where the power of the east will see fit to hate, subjugate, and exterminate all that it’s privy to in the west, regardless of retaliation from local natives or repudiation from livid nature. But what nature, from a herd of buffalo thriving until they’re not, to the simple, almost indecipherable moment that an icicle catches the sun. Maybe, just maybe will Lubeski’s grandiose effort foster a greater appreciation for the earth we’ve commandeered, his use of natural light and Inarritu’s extended takes coming together to capture the frozen moors of Montana and South Dakota in the dead of winter. The photography is so beautiful, so transcendent that I’m tempted to call it the prettiest anything ever put to film, or the Alexa 65 as it were.
The narrative does occasionally get bogged down with dreams and hallucinations of Hugh’s making, opaque whispers from beyond that approach Malick-ian repetition. Fortunately, as soon as the gorgeous scenery gives way to such pretension, the astute screenplay reels us back in with an absorbing tale of survival, not to mention ingenuity. Watching Leo use gunpowder, grass, and fire to seal a wound will make you appreciate our cozy modern existence. The director of “Birdman” hasn’t topped his Oscar-winning triumph, but he’s certainly outdone himself in mastering auteur wizardry. “The Revenant” is not only a soaring accomplishment, it represents a veritable mea culpa for those who doubted his genius. The cold was worth it.