My thoughts following watching The Revenant, a film directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, was that it was an altogether excellent film and I hope never to see it again. Much like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a near three hour long western that is frequently brutal and often bleak. Where the former film goes for stylized and exaggerated violence, The Revenant uses chilling realism to tell its story. It is singularly effective, gut wrenchingly hard to look away from and almost impossible to look at again once it is over.
It is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a trapper working with the US Army who in 1820 gets mauled by a bear. His companions drag him as far as they can, but in the end leave him in the care of a few men, including his son, who are supposed to watch him until he dies. After one of the men, Fitzgerald, kills his son and leaves Glass for dead, he treks across the wilds of Dakotas to get revenge. Many of the details are have been altered, or changed outright, but the bear attack and trek through the wilderness are true to life. I was warned beforehand that the bear mauling scene was brutal, and it is, but it is followed by numerous scenes that are equally hard to watch. Glass goes through hell in his quest, and no one else gets off easy. Each act of bloody violence compounds on the one before it, exhausting the viewer is its sheer ugly spectacle.
In sharp contrast to the ugly violence perpetrated by the men in this film is the incomparable beauty of the setting. Offsetting the scenes of blood in this film are vast panoramas that display the beauty of Northern Great Plains. It shows different sorts of fauna, along with the rivers, forests and mountains that awe viewers in between scenes full of blood and violence. The two are so different it is almost as though they are from two different films.
DiCaprio has gotten a lot of attention for his performance, but equally striking is the performance of Hardy. Hardy plays the villain that is almost comically in his complete lack of redeeming characteristics, but Hardy makes him seem real. Right from the start, when the Native Americans start attacking the trapping crew, he is more concerned with the pelts and his payday than getting anyone else out alive. He follows that up with a racist speech, an attempted murder and several actual murders. There are shades of grey with everyone else, from Bridger, the young man convinced to leave Glass to die, to the Native Americans on the warpath looking for their Chiefs kidnapped daughter, but Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a monster.
It all comes together into a film that is equal parts beautiful and ugly. For the most part it sticks to its simple story other than from some ill-advised detours into magical native mysticism. I found the violence sickening, and it wore on me as the film went on. The Revenant is a film that feels every minute of its long run time. Still, it is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. It is also an experience that maybe shouldn’t be repeated.