In early 19th Century frontier life, expert tracker Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a group of gruff men on a fur trading expedition. The primal and disheveled look and behavior of the men contrasts the pure natural beauty of the snowy mountains and the rivers that surround them. Suddenly, one of the men is hit in the neck with an arrow. Before the other frontiersmen can react, they are all attacked by a hail of arrows coming from a Native American tribe that's fed up with the immoral white men raping and destroying their land and people.
In less than a minute, the snow and the river is covered in the crimson blood of almost fifty men from both sides of the battle. Glass and a small group of his men manage to jump into a boat and barely make it out of the battle with their lives. As far as cinematic depictions of the North American frontier life is concerned, we're as goddamn far away from Disney's Davy Crockett as humanly possible.
Alejandro González Iñárritu's harrowing and mesmerizing The Revenant is pure, unadulterated cinema, the kind of raw, brutally honest, and refreshingly vibrant film that the great Hollywood directors of the 70s, the industry's true golden age, used to capture. Every frame of it feels alive, despite and sometimes even due to the amount of death that surrounds it. It's a grim and unflinching tale of survival that seamlessly descends into the dark crevices of the human psyche, the reptilian brain that demands revenge, an integral part of us that we in the "civilized" world try to ignore as much as possible.
But Hugh Glass doesn't have that luxury. After saving his men from certain death, Glass suffers from a violent bear attack that injures him within an inch of his life. The mauling scene, depicted in a single, heart attack-inducing take, is so effective that the preview audience behind me were wondering how the crew got a real bear to attack Leo. As Glass hangs on for dear life, he's left behind to die by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), an 1820s version of a Trump supporter; selfish, entitled, and devoid of any empathy. Crawling out of the grave he was buried alive in, Glass survives in the harsh wilderness with a singular driving purpose: Revenge. As all semblances of sanity and worldly desires fades away, Glass looks deep into the abyss, and the abyss gladly returns the favor.
As stripped down as The Revenant's story of one man's burning desire for vengeance is, it's far from an exploitative revenge fantasy. With his emphasis on how helpless and insignificant Glass is against nature, punctuated by a magnificent shot that shows him as a tiny black dot in the middle of giant a field filled with nothing but snow, Iñárritu captures a sublime balance of man against nature, where man-made concepts of justice and retribution become more and more insignificant against the neutral coldness of nature.
You'll read lots of reviews that designate legendary DP Emmanuel Lubezki as the true star of the film. There's some truth to that, since the extremely realistic and gorgeous cinematography that used nothing but natural light might be the greatest selling point of the film. But without Iñárritu's assured vision and the staunchly dedicated performances from everyone involved, The Revenant would just end up as a series of pretty images. This is one of those rare cases where everyone, including Lubezki of course, is at the peak of their game. With frank depictions of harrowing violence and an overall bleak tone, The Revenant is a tough cinematic pill to swallow, and is definitely not for everyone. But if you manage to tune into Iñárritu's brave take on the western genre, it's incredibly rewarding.