To say that a movie can be appreciated only on the big screen has become a reliable cliche, but in the case of “The Revenant,” a meticulously made Western and survival adventure, it’s true.
Yes, it will look good on DVD and probably better on Blu-ray, but to really get the full effect of this movie’s visceral and often majestic environment, you really do need to see it on a big screen — the bigger the better.
“The Revenant” is, in many respects, a brilliant achievement in filmmaking. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is innovative and fluid, shifting from intimate close-ups to breathtaking wide angles (sometimes in the same shot). The kinetic editing, aided by CGI techniques, takes full advantage of director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s penchant for long, moving shots (as he did in the Oscar-winning “Birdman”), building tension while intoxicating viewers with seductive images.
The film showcases one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performances, albeit with minimal dialogue. He spends a lot of time grunting and wincing, encrusted with mud and dried blood as he faces one peril after another: Indian fights, an utterly convincing assault by a grizzly bear, a cliff dive and river rapids that wash him over a waterfall. If that sounds like the stuff of melodrama, it is. Viewers will repeatedly ask themselves: “How’s he gonna get out of this fix?”
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DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a relatively minor figure in the history of the fur trade, who in the 1820s was attacked by a mother grizzly bear protecting her cubs somewhere on the upper Missouri. His ghastly wounds appeared so severe that his fellow trappers assumed he would die. Two — Thomas Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and a very young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) — agreed to stay with him and give him a proper burial.
Fitzgerald and Bridger, however, abandoned the still-living Glass, who miraculously survived and found his way back to the nearest fort, largely by crawling and eating anything resembling food he could find.
These are the facts, more or less, of the real Hugh Glass, which became the basis of Michael Punke’s novel from which the movie takes its title (a revenant is someone who has returned from the dead), if not its entire plot.
At its best, the movie is a gripping survival tale — imagine an episode of Animal Planet’s “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” shot on a $135 million budget — with painterly images and extraordinary attention to detail.
Perhaps inevitably for a big-budget epic, it sometimes stumbles and undermines its considerable strengths. A subplot about Glass’ son (Forrest Goodluck) by a Pawnee mother and dreamlike flashbacks to their once happy domestic life only interrupt the dramatic flow. They also feel a bit like an awkward nod to political correctness in an effort to justify the spectacular battle between trappers and Arikara warriors early in the film. The scales are further balanced when a starving Glass gets a big assist from a Native American (Arthur RedCloud).
But after going to great expense, assembling a gifted international cast and shooting on remote rivers and difficult far-flung locations from Canada to Argentina, the writers settle for a climax we’ve seen in scores of Westerns, not to mention action thrillers, superhero movies and Tarzan flicks. After sticking with a movie that runs about two hours and 30 minutes, you may simply shrug and ask: “Is that it?”
Hardy chalks up a vivid performance as Fitzgerald, although the character’s villainy seems almost arbitrary, and his “backwoods” accent is sometimes indecipherable. Canadian actor Duane Howard, who plays Elk Dog, leader of the Arikaras, delivers a thoughtful, charismatic performance; in fact, the supporting cast is uniformly strong.
At its best, “The Revenant” is an immersive, sensual experience. But it is what it is: a high-end version of the reliable survival genre represented by films as diverse as “The Naked Prey,” “The Road” and “Into the Wild.” No matter what their flaws may be, the natural drama of a man or woman surviving against the odds always draws us in.
Rated R. Time: 2:36.