The Revenant is the above all else the story of one man, a man named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Glass is a frontiersman of the west, but not a west we know filled with cowboys, outlaws, and the Iron Horse. Glass’ story takes place before all that, in 1823. Glass is a fur trapper, traveling lands which will one day be known as Montana and the Dakotas in search of valuable pelts. He is the navigator for an expedition led by Andrew Harry (Domhnall Gleeson), which also includes a hostile and aggressive man named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a young boy named Will Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass’ half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). During their expedition, the party is attacked and decimated by a war party of Natives, losing many men and most of their pelts. They are forced into unexplored territory in an attempt to avoid more attacks, but further disaster strikes when Glass is viciously mauled by a grizzly bear. This causes of a cascade of events wherein Glass is left for dead and Hawk is murdered.
There are two main words which I think describe The Revenant quite well: "brutal" and "beautiful". First thing to note: absolutely do not view this film if you are squeamish about blood or gore. This is a brutally violent film which does not pull any punches- for sake of comparison, think of Oldboy or Only God Forgives. The grizzly scene is particularly gruesome; you see every single way that 700 pounds of muscle and teeth can rip a man apart. The brutality is enhanced even further with Iñárritu’s signature directorial style of really long takes (although they’re used nowhere near the extent that they were in Birdman). In the grizzly scene, for example, the camera does not cut away even once, forcing you to watch every gory detail without any respite.
The Revenant is at its core the story of Glass. Specifically, it is about his quest for revenge. The sheer anger and hatred he possesses is the only thing that keeps him alive, giving him the fuel to claw his way back from virtually certain death in his quest for vengeance. Matching the literal violence and brutality of the film is the emotional hurricane that each character has to live through. Glass is the most obvious about this, but each character has his own scars and demons that he carries with him. Each actor is able to show this turmoil wonderfully, from Hardy’s bitterness to Gleeson’s tormented sense of duty and Poulter’s sheer confusion and anguish. The film is, however, fairly sparse in dialogue, with long periods punctuated only by the subtle score or natural sounds such as rain and running water.
But amongst the violence and brutality of this film there is also amazing beauty. Shot on location in British Columbia, Alberta, and Patagonia, the cinematography of The Revenant is just gorgeous. It showcases incredible natural beauty, and hearkens back to the Westerns of old. Most of the areas featured in the film are extremely remote; often close to half of each day of filming was taken up by getting to and back from the locations. Even more incredibly, The Revenant was filmed without any artificial lighting sources whatsoever- every shot in the movie is lit only by the sun or moon. The film’s CGI is very minimal, used only to add animals to several scenes (I’m still trying to figure out how they filmed that grizzly scene).
The Revenant, in many ways, is just like that lost West it so beautifully illustrates: exceptionally violent and brutal but also exceedingly beautiful. It is this dichotomy, this seeming incompatibility, which makes the film so compelling. It barrels forward like a force of nature, powered by sheer hatred and force of will and tearing apart anything which gets in its way. It's not a film for the squeamish or the faint of heart, but The Revenant is a cinematic experience that I highly recommend.