It’s been a long time since we’ve had a good bear-attack movie. A smattering of outdoor adventures have featured competent grizzlies-on-a-rampage scenes — the young Ethan Hawke had an especially memorable encounter in 1991’s White Fang — but they are few and far between. Happily, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant has now arrived to remedy the situation. But we will say no more about that. You’ll have to wait for it.
The rest of The Revenant — meaning “one who has returned from the dead” — follows along in the “realistic Old West” movie tradition of the past fifteen years, meaning facial hair for almost all the male characters (only one woman appears in the film, without beard), dirty clothes, matter-of-fact frontier cruelty, and mayhem, etc. That is, a complete changeover from the days when, say, Kirk Douglas would ride into town clean-shaven, wearing a neatly pressed cowboy outfit, on a fluffy-maned horse, to romance Rhonda Fleming in sanitary, brightly lit rooms, and shoot down Dennis Hopper in a fair gunfight.
None of that for Iñárritu. He and his co-scenarist Mark L. Smith, adapting Michael Punke’s novel, fill their fur-trappers-take-on-all-comers tale with utterly believable grunge and blood, plus the overriding expectation that at any moment, when you least expect it, you will be savagely bushwhacked from out of nowhere. The title character is Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a hunter accompanying a party of trappers in the Missouri River territory in the 1820s. Glass, a comparatively meditative sort who has lived with Native Americans and witnessed how unfairly they are treated by marauding white men, travels with his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) in an expedition led by US Army Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). In that group of scruffy skinners is one particularly loathsome albatross, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a half-scalped blowhard in whose company you would be ill-advised to turn your back. Glass and Fitzgerald have their differences, and settle them at length.
Iñárritu now seems fully recovered from his dreadful string of early hyperlink films, and with the backstage portrait Birdman in the bank, continues his run through the genres. The Revenant may be one of the chilliest-looking westerns in captivity. Shot on location in Canada and Southern Argentina, the pic’s winter setting and its putative commitment to no computer-generated imagery give cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki the opportunity for some extravagant winter scene-setting. Frosty mountain passes, raging rapids, heavy snows, pesky critters — DiCaprio’s Glass and his erstwhile comrades struggle mightily amid some of the most convincingly harsh wilderness locations since Akira Kurosawa’s Siberian survival tale Dersu Uzala (1975). The music score (by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner, and Alva Noto) and sound engineering contribute eloquently to the mood of desolation.
The driving force in the story is a combination of revenge — on the part of Glass and also a tribe of natives searching for a kidnapped squaw named Powaqa (played by Melaw Nakehk’o) — and pure orneriness, as embodied by Fitzgerald. Busy English actor Hardy, in his third major-release appearance of 2015 (alongside Mad Max: Fury Road and Legend), tears up the woods with his redneck nastiness. His “God is a squirrel” speech is a high point. DiCaprio, by necessity, operates at a slow simmer, drifting in and out of feverish dreamscapes and building to an explosion of righteousness. Nothing very complicated here, just richly textured suffering by men with very little to lose. A movie of sustained ferocity to arguable effect, with superior visuals. Consumers’ alert: Try to bring a cup of coffee or hot chocolate into the screening, to keep your teeth from chattering.