Leonardo DiCaprio Shines In ‘The Revenant’


The new film The Revenant is beautiful, with a powerful grace that almost makes up for its being overly long and too overtly poetic. The cinematography is incredible; you may never have seen the American wilderness quite in this way.

Director Alejandro Iñárritu has strong notions about America in its original state: untouched and beautiful until defiled by white invaders. The stunning beauty of the background is part of the action. The place is gorgeous; there is an almost unspoken homage to the natives here, and the invaders are generally hateful. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki deserves an Oscar for his work. We see fabulous natural views that are astounding and make a lot of the human action seem inconsequential.

The plot is based on the life of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a white man with a half-native son (symbolically making him a slightly better person than those who merely want to make money) who, on a trip where he guides a group of men led by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), he is attacked and not only left for dead but actually buried alive.

Glass crawls out of the grave; for those who never heard the word before, a “revenant” is someone or thing that crawls out of a grave. It could be a ghost or zombie or, in this case, someone who got buried a bit too early. Actually, Glass is symbolically buried a few times, coming out of each situation even more intent on survival and revenge.

I have read that the director forced the cast and crew through enormous privations in order to get the kind of shots needed. It is beautiful, but it is also harrowing. After a while, I just wished Glass would get to civilization so we could go on with the ending.

Fitzgerald is portrayed rather more as the symbol of white men’s greed rather than a person. He says, rather too often, that the best way to civilize the natives is through shooting them. And he and his companions do that a bit, although Iñárritu is quick to show them all willingly doing business, perhaps a sarcastic commentary on capitalism. Then again, the natives are corrupted as well. They shoot at the whites, kill and scalp them, but they are ready to trade. And, as the film works hard to demonstrate, they are usually cheated.

For some reason, this movie reminded me of The Martian, where astronaut Matt Damon had to wander over the vast landscape of that planet in order to survive. In this film, the lead performer has the same problems without all the good humor and wisecracks. Since heroes generally make it to the end, we sort of know that although many things will harm our hero, nothing will actually kill him. This reduces some of the tension and weakens the film.

DiCaprio is exceptional in the movie; it seems designed to win him an Oscar. Unfortunately, in what is essentially a “spaghetti western” kind of story (think The Outlaw Josey Wales with Clint Eastwood), I was almost overwhelmed by this overdone production. DiCaprio comes through well, but at times seems almost irrelevant. Hardy is very good as the evil Fitzgerald, not so modestly accepting praise for his work trying to help Glass, while knowing that he had, he thought, killed him. I liked Forrest Goodluck as the half-native son, Hawk. It was well-played for a young performer. Will Poulter as a young, not very bright Jim Bridger, was also very good. But the film belongs to DiCaprio in terms of the acting.

The problem with this kind of film — and this is Iñárritu’s specialty — is that it is so intent on making its point that a lot of the drama is lost. Fitzgerald is just so, so evil. DiCaprio is so intent on revenge. That means melodrama. There are no shades of gray.

I liked the movie a lot. The action scenes are intense and very well done. And, yes, there is that now famous scene with a bear, although a lot of it was done through computer imagery. But in between are long spaces with beautiful vistas. It could have lost about 20 minutes and been a better film.

But it is one of the best films I saw from 2015. I thought Birdman was one of the weaker films last year, even though it won the Oscar. This is a much better movie, but I wish the editing had been tighter. See it.