For a while there, it seemed like Leonardo DiCaprio had lapsed back in time to the days when studios kept actors at their beck and call; if it wasn’t a Martin Scorsese picture, DiCaprio was nowhere to be found. He also seems to have overcome whatever malaise affected him after Titanic was such a smash, and has gotten back to the Leo we saw in films such as The Basketball Diaries and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. Then, on the other hand, there’s Alejandro González Iñárritu. Iñárritu blasted out of the gate with Love’s a Bitch fifteen years ago, and a fine thing it was. Then something happened. I’m not sure what, exactly, but the closest I can come to it is that he became a director of concept; his films were, while still somewhat enjoyable (with one notable exception that will be mentioned in passing later), more about The Grand Scheme of Things than they were about character. So here we are with The Revenant, and for those who don’t like to read below the fold, I’ll tell you that this is Iñárritu’s best movie in fifteen years, and for much the same reasons that made Love’s a Bitch such a good watch. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First off, if you’re not a horror movie fan, and if you didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons back in your teenage years, you may be asking yourself “what is a revenant, anyway?” Lucky for you I’m both of those things, and can answer that question. Think of a revenant as a zombie that’s taken courses from Stanislavsky. It’s a dead body that has, in effect, regained its 21 Grams (sorry, couldn’t resist) and come back from the dead with a specific purpose in mind. It’s out to perform one task. And now you know.
In this case, out revenant is one Mr. Glass (DiCaprio), a scout and sharpshooter in the wild old (mid)west–Missouri, to be precise–who with his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck in his feature debut) is scouting for, and protecting, a band comprised of military and fur trappers. Thanks to a number of nasty problems, the party find themselves nearly wiped out and struggling to take an alternate route back to camp over a mountain when Glass is mauled by a grizzly. His Captain (Ex Machina‘s Domhnall Gleason) wants him kept alive at any cost–he’s the only one who can get them back to camp without them wandering blind in the rapidly-approaching wintertime–but they reach a point where his litter can be carried no farther. The Captain asks for volunteers to stay and either nurse him back to health or, if it comes to that, give him a good Christian burial. Hawk stays, of course, along with young, idealistic Bridger (The Maze Runner‘s Will Poulter). The surprise volunteer is Fitzgerald (Warrior‘s Tom Hardy), a vile, racist pig who despises the half-Pawnee Hawk and has been convinced the entire time that Glass is useless to the party. Still, he gives a barely credible reason for staying behind, and the Captain agrees. To make a long story short (we’re almost an hour into the movie at this point), things end up with Hawk dead, Glass buried alive, and Fitzgerald and the clueless Bridger trying to make it back to camp on their own. Bridger, remorsefully, left his canteen with Glass, hoping it would provide him some comfort in his final moments. It certainly did more than that…
So what is it about The Revenant that brought Iñárritu back to the ground, as it were?
Simple: as he did in Love’s a Bitch, Iñárritu deals here with the issues that grounded him in that first movie: the working poor. Race and class war. The daily lives of people who constantly have to fight for it. Glass is, in many ways, a wild-west version of Love’s a Bitch‘s Octavio (perfectly played by Gael García Bernal); he finds himself in a precarious situation, and as the film progresses, both his desperation and his determination increase. But then, of course, Iñárritu gave it away in the title; Glass will stop at nothing until his task is complete. The compulsion in this journey is seeing how far he’ll push himself. (Sorry, Tom Hanks. Leo’s struggle in isolation blew yours out of the water. And he didn’t even have a volleyball to keep him company.)
The Revenant, like its predecessor, is a loud, ugly, violent thing that will probably upset a few weaker stomachs, but man, when Iñárritu’s on his game, there aren’t many who do it better. Gorgeously shot, exceptionally well-paced for a film that runs over two and a half hours, and acted to perfection, The Revenant is one you don’t want to miss if you can handle the violence.