Dir. Alejandro Inarritu. U.S. 2015

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Set in 1823-24 in what is now South Dakota, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant, winner of the Best Picture Award at the Golden Globes, is loosely based on the experience of American fur trapper Hugh Glass who miraculously survived a bear attack and sought revenge against a Texas mercenary who abandoned him and killed his son. Adapted from Michael Punke’s book, “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge,” and written by the director, it is a story of the resilience and endurance of a man fighting for survival in a harsh wilderness under extreme weather conditions. Shot with natural light in minus forty-degree temperatures in Alberta, Canada, the film is a testament not only to the skills of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski, but to Inarritu’s commitment to the authenticity of his craft.

In the film, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a scout for trappers employed by the Rocky Mountain Trading Company. In the opening sequence, we learn that Glass was married to a Pawnee woman who was killed by soldiers and who is raising a son named Hawk (Forrest Goodluck).  The scene then shifts to the trader’s campsite where the men are attacked by warring Arikara Indians. The tribe, whose numbers had recently been decimated by smallpox, was eager to trade pelts for horses and rifles but bore the scars of the white man’s encroachment on their land. In the attack, the trappers suffer heavy casualties and only a few are left alive besides Glass: Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), Hawk, young hunter Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and frontiersman John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), all persuaded by Glass to attempt an overland route back to their Fort Kiowa headquarters.

Out hunting for food, Glass is viciously attacked by a bear and, though clinging to life, is buried alive by Fitzgerald who also kills his son Hawk. Though the bear is a CGI construction, the attack is stomach-churning in its gruesomeness and brings the viewer into the middle of an animal attack that has a startling feeling of reality. Amazingly regaining consciousness, Glass crawls through freezing snow and chilling waters to find Fitzgerald and revenge his son’s murder. Surviving on scraps of animal carcasses, he is sustained by mystical messages of encouragement from his dead wife and the help of a Pawnee Indian who ends up being hung from a tree by the French with a sign around his neck saying “We are all savages.”

The Revenant, though not as emotionally involving as it should be, meshes a powerful struggle for survival with elements of spiritual awareness. Unfortunately, however, its spiritual message does not include forgiveness and perpetuates the myth that wrongdoing can only be redeemed by superior force. It is nonetheless a physically stunning film whose natural beauty reminds us of the existence of a land with forests, rivers, and streams that has not yet been, as author Charles Eisenstein put it, “destroyed by development: cordoned off, no-trespassed, filled in, cut down, paved over, and built up.”

Though he has little dialogue, DiCaprio’s performance is one of the best of his long career and worthy of an Oscar nomination, his eyes and body language expressing a fierce determination and strength of will. For Glass, there is only one way out of it and that’s through it. It is a punishing test of endurance both for him and for the viewer. 


Howard Schumann

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