There's little subtlety to be found in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, but that's no surprise coming from the man who directed the one-take wonder Birdman, which was steeped in symbolism and dream logic. The Revenant takes place in a world more recognizably our own, but is just as thick with meaning. If you’re still puzzling out the meaning of the fiery meteor streaking through the sky in Birdman’s enigmatic opening shot, be prepared to be just as baffled with it shows up again in this movie.
It’s easy to see what drew Iñárritu to this story, based on real events and Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, about Hugh Glass, a 19th century fur trapper and scout in the American frontier, who was mauled by a bear and buried alive, only to crawl out of his grave and travel over 200 miles seeking revenge. For the first half of the movie, the story is told more or less directly -- there’s some showy camerawork, but none of it distances the viewer from the story (as it has, at times, in Iñárritu’s career). The film’s most impressive set piece is the bear attack itself, which is presented as one long, horrific ordeal. It may even be filmed in one take -- I honestly can’t tell you, because I had to look away from the screen many, many times. It’s not that the scene is bloody (though it is) or intense (though it is that, too), it’s that it feels so real.
We’re long past the point where Leonardo DiCaprio has to prove that he’s one of the greatest actors of his generation, but just in case we’ve forgotten, he inhabits Glass with a steady determination in the early scenes that help you believe that this man could actually survive all of the tremendous physical and emotional traumas that are set upon him. Tom Hardy, dedicated, apparently, to spending his career playing unintelligible characters, is a brute force as Fitzgerald, a fur trapper with a grudge against Glass, and the very last person you’d want to leave behind to ensure his safety.
The first hour of the film is breathtaking, a spectacle filled with blood, gore, and beautiful vistas that demands to be seen on the big screen. As long as Glass remains in mortal danger, the film is gripping, but once Glass finds help, the film settles into a more relaxed pace, which deflates some of the tension. Then that new rhythm is jettisoned at the end, as the film devolves into a more familiar action/revenge picture. Once Glass returns to settle the score, the film rushes to a climax filled with scenes overly familiar to the western genre and a cliched final showdown.
But the disappointing finale doesn’t detract from the overwhelming experience of the film. You will constantly put yourself in Glass’s place, wondering if you would be strong enough to drag and crawl and bleed your way to survival, and you will wonder, as well, if you would make the choice that Glass makes at the end of the movie.