First, an apology to anyone I told to get lost when they said this was a remake of the 1971 film “Man in the Wilderness.” It sure is, right down to the fur trappers stuck in the woods with winter coming on, and the sequence of a bear attacking the story’s leading man, in that case Richard Harris as the hired guide Zachary Bass. “The Revenant” is based on the same true story, in this case with Leonardo DiCaprio as the fur trappers’ guide Hugh Glass. Both films turn into a tale of revenge, of what happens when the injured guide, left for dead, survives, then vows to set things straight.
But that’s where the resemblance ends, as “Man in the Wilderness” is an adventure film, and “The Revenant” (a revenant is someone who, either literally or figuratively, rises from the dead) is about man versus man, man versus nature, and man challenging himself. Some will find it horrifying, while others will find it spiritual.
The other big difference is that this is an art film, made by Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu (“Birdman,” “Amores Perros.” Inarritu has reunited with his “Birdman” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and that pairing gives this film its visual resonance. You feel it from the opening shot, with the camera moving through a stark, flooded woodland, into which silently glides a group of armed hunter/trappers.
It’s not long before that peace is shattered by an assault on the trappers’ camp by Indian bow-and-arrow marksmen. There’s much violent mayhem and plentiful bloodshed, as the white men try to escape with as many of their pelts as they can carry.
This tough-to-watch scene also introduces some of the film’s emotional conflict. The trappers are headed up by an army captain (Domnhall Gleeson) with some of his men along, and they’re all led by hired guide Hugh Glass and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). They’re killing animals and collecting pelts for the money. The Indians, it’s later revealed, are being led by their chief who is searching for the daughter that was taken from the tribe by white men. They will steal any pelts they find in order to trade with nearby French hunters for horses and guns in order to keep tracking the white men.
Once the remaining trappers get away, and Glass is soon after caught, alone in the woods by a protective mama bear, and is shredded by her teeth and claws, this turns into a story of resiliency and survival.
[TECHNICAL SPOILER: There is no bear in this sequence. It’s all CG. DiCaprio endlessly practiced the choreographed business of throwing his body around as if he was being mauled by a bear. The result is stunning.]
It’s a film about good versus evil, evil being personified by a psychopathic trapper named Fitzgerald, who has it in for Glass and his son. The plot has the captain making the difficult decision to leave the barely breathing Glass behind as he and his men try to make it back, on an uphill climb through wintery woods, to the fort. Two men (one is Fitzgerald) are assigned to stay with him, and bury him when he dies. His distressed son also stays. To put it mildly, everything goes wrong.
Then, along with flashbacks that bring Glass’ tragic past into focus, the resiliency side of things comes to the fore. There will be rooting for the good guy and against the bad guy, with lots of side stories being told in between. Nature gets her say when, if some crime against her or humanity is committed on the ground, the camera pans up to see and hear the trees and the wind swaying and whooshing in discord. DiCaprio and Hardy are at the tops of their games; excellent use is made of outdoor grandeur; the film is harsh and violent and beautiful and poetic.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro Inarritu; directed by Alejandro Inarritu
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck