The Revenant is a two-and-a-half hour long tale of survival and revenge set in the 19th Century American frontier. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu pulls out all the stops in his depiction of savagery; he is so determined to put the viewer into the shoes of the lead character as he experiences incredible physical pain that the movie turns into an endurance test for the audience. It's like a roller coaster of unrelenting misery. I wouldn't have been surprised if the theater had souvenir t-shirts for sale, with the blood-drenched image of a bear attacking a frontiersman and the words "I SURVIVED THE REVENANT" emblazoned on the chest.
Are YOU tough enough to sit through The Revenant experience? The first hour is brutal, but outstanding. The remaining hour-and-a-half is just brutal.
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Glass works in the beaver-trapping trade for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Early in the film Glass and some other men are attacked by a group of Arikara warriors. An arrow flies through the air to rip a man's throat and all hell breaks loose.
There's a lot to see and hear in this part of the film. The sound design is memorable. Later, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Notos's slow-build score will impress. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezi sends the cameras swooping all over the place, with long, unbroken shots to dazzle the eye and remind us of his feature-length faux-unbroken shot in Inarritu's Birdman.
Following the attack the survivors move on. The group includes Glass's teenage son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who has Pawnee blood on his mother's side, group leader Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnail Gleeson), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who has a bad attitude.
While out on his own, Glass is mauled by a massive grizzly bear in the most realistic, horrific and unrelenting animal attack ever committed to film. I'm not kidding, this is as visceral as it gets. Glass somehow survives the attack, but his wounds — in the throat, back, chest — are horrific. The Captain, certain that Glass will soon die, elects to move on, leaving Hawk, Fitzgerald and young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) to stay behind and give him a proper burial when he passes. Fitzgerald soon tires of waiting, kills Hawk, buries Glass alive and splits with the kid in tow. But Glass still doesn't die, and soon digs his way out of the shallow grave.
If you're worried that I've revealed too much, please understand that everything I described is basically the set-up for the bulk of the film, where Glass heals enough to move, and sets out on a mission of revenge.
Everything I described is also from the best part of the film, the part that suggests that we're about to be privy to an epic quest and a grand statement. But somewhere along the way there's a disconnect. Perhaps it comes during the visually spectacular moment where a horse is ridden off a cliff and into raging rapids and boulder-covered waterfalls far below and Glass STILL doesn't die. Or maybe it's just as you gradually realize that Inarritu and Smith have no statements to make, grand or otherwise, unless "life's a bitch, then you die ... sooner or later" counts.
There's a lot of talk that Leonardo DiCaprio may finally win an Oscar for his work here. DiCaprio is spot-on in the role, but I question how many acting choices there are to make when your task is to suffer convincingly. The rest of the cast is fine as well.
I was encouraged to see members of different tribes onscreen, but after a while the "indigenous people are mystical beings in touch with the spirit world" cliché rears its trippy head.
The bottom line is this: There's a great deal of talent involved in The Revenant and the first hour of the film is stunning. After that, it's a whole lot of showing off as Glass drags himself down the road to nowhere. Your challenge is to decide whether to take that ride.