By Richard von Busack
In brief, The Revenant is what The Hateful Eight promised to be: The toughest Western since True Grit, complete with awe-inducing snowscapes. It’s dazzling to see that such magnificent desolation is left in a crowded world. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu based The Revenant on the legend of Hugh Glass, previously filmed in 1971 as Man in the Wilderness with Richard Harris commencing his series of frontier-ordeal movies. Iñárritu grounds the violence in the fur trade in the upper Missouri river in the 1820s—the result of a bubble in the price of beaver hides. Rival groups of Europeans denuded the forest of its creatures, while holding off the understandably furious Arikara Indians. Scouting for a party of trappers, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. Despite severe wounds and a broken leg, Glass fought his way back to civilization … in this version to confront the man,
John Fitzgerald (the ever-impressive Tom Hardy) who abandoned him.
What doesn’t happen to DiCaprio’s Glass in this epic, set in the Dakotas, but taking in real-life locations from Tierra del Fuego to British Columbia? Indian attacks, blizzards and the money scene from Jack London’s To Build A Fire. A fall off a cliff, a tumble down the freezing river rapids, a cauterization that tops the one in Two Mules for Sister Sara, Gollum-style meals of raw fish … and the most vicious bear attack ever filmed for a fictional movie, wrought by a sow grizzly protecting her cubs.
As seen from his various melodramas from Babel to Biutiful, Iñárritu is a stranger to the word “enough.” (Still, the plethora of events includes an intelligent subplot: A chief and some of his companions searching for a kidnapped girl, as if in an inversion of John Ford’s The Searchers.) Within the extremities and occasional nonsense in The Revenant is a superb blood and guts Western with shock and sweeping visual scope. Hardy’s Fitzgerald—he’s been cracked since he was scalped (“I got my head turned inside out”) proves that a Western is better when you can see an antagonist’s point. Glass did look awfully almost dead. Hitting age 40, a never-tougher DiCaprio makes you tend to believe this story of hellish endurance.