THE REVENANT, historical drama, rated R; in English, French, Pawnee, and Arikara with some subtitles; Regal Stadium 14, Violet Crown, and DreamCatcher; 2.5 chiles
The adventures of Hugh Glass, one of the legendary mountain men of the American frontier, make for spellbinding storytelling. Whether they make a spellbinding movie is likely to be found in the eye of the beholder. The facts of this tale are grisly, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (last year’s Oscar-winner with Birdman) hews closely to them. Glass, a trapper and scout with a military expedition in 1823, was attacked and horribly mauled by a bear. It seemed impossible that he could live. However, he wasn’t dead yet, so his commanding officer got a couple of volunteers, John Fitzgerald and nineteen-year-old Jim Bridger, to stay with him and give him a decent burial, while the rest of the party moved on, anxious to get beyond hostile Indian territory. But the ornery old cuss refused to die, and after a few days Fitzgerald decided enough was enough. Leaving Glass to the inevitable, he and Bridger took his rifle and possessions, and caught up to their unit, telling the commander that he was dead.
Incredibly, Glass survived, and as upper-body strength returned to him, he dragged himself painfully, crawling and grunting in agony with ghastly wounds and a broken leg, scavenging roots and berries and occasional meat and marrow from abandoned carcasses. With mind-boggling endurance and revenge-driven purpose, he made it back to civilization and set out to find the two men who had left him to die.
All of this is historically documented, more or less, and Iñárritu tells the tale with admirable fidelity. A man being attacked by a bear is riveting cinema; a man dragging himself over hundreds of miles of frozen landscape is not. The dialogue, if you want to call it that, is mostly guttural grunts and groans, augmented with a few words in English, a few more in French, and the rest in Pawnee and Arikara. The movie throws in a few extra story elements, like a Pawnee wife and teenage son, and an Arikara chief whose daughter has been kidnapped, and it moves the setting from summer to the dead of winter, the better to frame the suffering. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also salt the footage with endless upward shots of towering pines to illustrate a symbol about a tree with a strong trunk surviving even when its upper branches are buffeted by strong winds.
Leonardo DiCaprio inhabits the character and the suffering of Glass with ferocious tenacity, and from what one hears, he deserves an Oscar for enduring and surviving excessive directorial zeal for realism. Will Poulter’s youthful Bridger is the victim of an evil companion, and the fact that he lived to become a legendary mountain man himself, and grace a postage stamp, suggests how things turned out for him. The evil companion, Fitzgerald, is gruffly played by Tom Hardy, whose growled utterances are scarcely more intelligible than Glass’ grunts, and whose fate is played out. Best of the bunch is Domhnall Gleeson’s Capt. Andrew Henry, the expedition’s honorable commander.
When he’s not infatuated with that upward tree shot, Lubezki’s cinematography is darkly beautiful, seldom illuminated by sunshine. The mauling of Glass by the mother grizzly highlights a raft of impressive visual effects. The story of Hugh Glass is a testament to man’s capacity for endurance. For better or for worse, so is the movie. — Jonathan Richards
Cold mountain man: Leonardo DiCaprio