In European folklore, a revenant is a corpse that returns from the grave
to terrorize the living. In this case the word aptly applies to a revenge
movie inspired by the story of what one man willingly suffered in pursuit of
the twisted psychopath who murdered his son. The pursuit itself isn't what
made Hugh Glass a legend -- it was an event that occurred along the way.
An American fur trapping team working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. is
hastily packing their considerable bounty from the wilds of Montana high
country as a small party led by frontiersman and scout Glass (Leonardo
hunts for deer to sustain them on their long and arduous trek back. Though
Glass downs a magnificent buck with his flintlock rifle, he's forced to
abandon his game when the group comes under attack by a fierce band of native
Indians whose arrows begin a slaughter.
To the Arikara, this is their land and the Americans are trespassing
Under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Donhnall Gleeson), co-owner of the
company who seems always to be in over his head, the trappers make great
haste to leave the mountain forest with as much of their skins as they can
carry. When Glass rejoins the main group, the sinister element of the story
comes in the form of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy ("The Drop")), a deranged
loud-mouth who complains about every decision. But his toxic invective then
turns to Glass, trying to convince the team's scout to leave and take his
half-breed son, Hawk, (Forrest Goodluck) with him.
The epic tale of Hugh Glass, a real-life man of inspiring legend as recorded
in Michael Punke's 1823 adventure account, "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge,
is directed by Inarritu, co-writing with screenwriter Mark L. Smith. The
setting reeks with authenticity and the grandeur of its locations standing-in
for South Dakota and down the Missouri River.
Punke's account of what is known about Glass leaves enough blanks in the
true account to allow dramatization, suspense and the central character's
jaw-dropping determination, a revenant. This leads us to the scene that
created the legend. Making his way alone along the banks of the Missouri
river toward the relative safety of the company boat, Glass comes upon a
mother grizzly bear protecting her two cubs. Just in time for the family
What ensues is the most realistically violent and savage attack on a human
being that I've ever seen on film. With the animal ripping Glass's scalp,
puncturing his throat, breaking his leg and inflicting damage on other body
parts, Glass, having dropped his flintlock rifle out of reach, fights back
We see it all from one angle, close to the ground, the agony gripping us in
awe as Glass's body is mauled and flipped with fury, then suddenly pumnched
upward. The effect is galvanizing. It is the stuff of nightmares, calling for
meticulous choreography and a mastery of CGI. But, even if you know all that,
The audience with which I saw the film is said to have gasped, yelped,
cover their eyes and walked out. I was frozen (and still am) in disbelief.
This scene is enough of a reason for serious moviegoers with a spine for
such cold-bloody savagery who haven't yet seen it to catch it asap.
Fortunately for Glass, he survives. I won't go into how, but he comes out
of it with little between his ravaged body and the vultures flying
As the key turning point, his condition gives Fitzgerald the opportunity to
kill Glass's half-Pawnee son and cunningly convince Captain Henry and the
company's survivors to leave Glass to die and abandoning him in a shallow
grave, in the snow and sleet, alive enough to experience his own, painful
end, within sight of his son's dead body.
Instead, this pivotal moment begins a relentless pursuit that seems
incredible... a paeon to man's spirit, relentlessness and need for justice at
Among films of intense violence, the bear scene is a peak of fearsome animal
power that makes Sam Peckinpah's first spurting-blood-from-bullet-wound
effect (in "The Wild Bunch") -- which was a sensation in 1969 filmmaking --
seem restrained. In the bear scene, there's no spurting blood, but what's
been done to Glass's body is easy enough to imagine and is made even more
visible when he self-cauterizes his wounds.
In a subplot with a subtle point about man's diversity, a French team of
trappers abduct the daughter of a tribal chief whose path Glass crosses
tirelessly leading a search party.
While there's truth in the criticism that Inarritu's story construction
meanders, you must admire his gutty realization of the film's challenges and
intensity. Certainly, one mark of directorial skill lies in his
choreography of DiCaprio's movements with the unexcelled realism of the CGI
bear's horrifying attack.
On the production side you have skill to match in Emmanuel Lubezki's grand
cinematatography, Bryce Dessner's (& others') music, Jack Fisk's production
design, Jacqueline West's costume design and every other aspect of a saga of
this magnitude. I have no problem calling this one of the most important
films of 2015.
Tom Hardy, it would seem, was born to make us hate him, and he's superbly up
to his masterful villainy again, making our blood boil with a loathing of his
character so severe that it impacts our sympathy for Glass to have his
justice, no matter what obstacles or injury along the way.
DiCaprio's taking on a role requiring such extremes of physical discomfort
and punishment was daring and adventurous. It's a demonstration of what an
actor may be willing to suffer without illusion or CGI enhancement. That is a
real snow-fed mountain river he plunges into time after time and, while the
injuries are only played, the strain of doing so across rocky, icy terrain is
evident and worthy of accolades.
It's a rare performance that intertwines the character with an appreciation of
what the actor had to do to achieve it -- which sets a new standard of
physical sacrifice for the realization of a role. It will probably be
considered DiCaprio's best work, but any way you look at what rigors he went
through, you've got to give him that he's one tough hombre in the name of
artistic realism. What other dramatic medium demands as much?
~~ Jules Brenner