Midway through Alejandro González Iñárritu's torturous Western The Revenant, injured fur trader Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) watches a pack of wolves take down a lone buffalo on the frozen tundra. Having just been left for dead by his own compatriots a few scenes before, this image carries a certain ironic weight for the hobbled loner attempting to make his way back to civilization. Subtlety doesn't exist in a place this rigorous.
The American frontier in the 1820s was a place of daily torment for anyone trying to make a living by way of the land. The Revenant attempts to show this experience in horrific detail. Oppressive weather, insurgent attacks from Native American tribes, and taxing terrain all make an appearance in this highlight reel of suffering, filmed with pristine clarity and attention to texture.
Known for making grueling films, Iñárritu infuses every moment of The Revenant with a lived-in sense of pain and physical toll. After being hunted by an enraged tribe of Pawnee during the opening moments, a ground level battle scene that could have been taken right from Saving Private Ryan, Glass gets ravaged by an angry grizzly bear while hunting for game. The attack leaves his body perforated with wounds and his mixed-race son riddled with worry.
A greedy colleague named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) with obvious racist tendencies buries Glass in a shallow grave and ends up killing the boy in the process. Suddenly awakened by a newfound sense of hatred, Glass overcomes his myriad calamities and crawls through the dirt and snow back to carry out his revenge. We get to see, hear and feel every step he takes.
The great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki gives the film a lyrical sensibility, favoring low angle shots that reach to the heavens. Tree trunks sway in the wind, a musket barrel extends the length of the frame, and trails of campfire smoke ascend upward into the night sky. Glass' journey may be earthbound, gritty and bloody, but his plight is an extension of something spiritual, something primal.
Except Iñárritu's sense of the divine is nothing like that of Terrence Malick's, another Lubezki collaborator. The difference here is that The Revenant glamorizes pain through repetition and calculated escalation. Glass' experiences grow increasingly absurd as his journey meanders through the nasty Missouri terrain. Melancholic flashbacks to his family life pre-trauma only add to the manipulative feel.
The Revenant salvages some of its meaningfulness by staying dedicated to a clear moral code, as most Westerns do. Those who are not morally rooted are destined to wander the Earth unfulfilled and haunted. Fitzgerald fits this mold, as does the marauding group of French Canadian mercenaries who have little regard for human life.
At the point where Glass and his horse go tumbling over a cliff after being chased by more rampaging Pawnee warriors, one begins to ask how many times can one man die? It's a valid question for a film that puts its protagonist through the ringer so many times, and one Iñárritu flirts with throughout as Glass cauterizes his own neck or tumbles down raging rapids.
Losses are acceptable, but compromising with cowards is not. Following this mindset with near fundamental resolve, Glass transitions from frontiersman to ghostly cipher, leaving little of his character left for interpretation. Too bad DiCaprio wasn't given more leeway to complicate his character's motivations.
With all of its technical virtuosity, The Revenant, which opens on Friday, Jan. 8, nevertheless has little soul. DiCaprio's performance is a tortured master class in method re-acting, but all of the prolonged suffering turns gratuitous. His American horror story is a citadel to sorrow that stands ominously close to parody.