In 1823, the American frontiersman Hugh Glass was working as a trapper and guide with the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. on the Upper Missouri when he was attacked by a grizzly and viciously mauled. Assuming he would succumb to his wounds, the party left him behind with two companions who were to bury his body when the seemingly inevitable transpired. Instead, they stole his kit and his gun, and left him to die. But Glass survived and crawled 320 kilometres on a broken leg across what is now South Dakota to retrieve his belongings and take his revenge.
Believe it or not, the difficulty in turning that true story into art is that it lacks drama. Specifically, it lacks a strong through-line for the amazingly resilient Glass since it's unclear whether he was mainly motivated by the theft or by the abandonment; Michael Punke's 2002 novel The Revenant, a surprisingly flat fictionalization of Glass's feat, may leave readers scratching their heads as to how a story so remarkable could prove so anticlimactic.
What is needed here is some professional myth-making, and who better to provide that than Hollywood? The Revenant, Alejandro G. Inarritu's powerful follow-up to last year's Oscar-winning Birdman, is an admirable exercise in cinematic storytelling, strategically scripted by the director and his co-writer, Mark L. Smith, movingly performed by Leonardo DiCaprio and magnificently filmed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
Inarritu and Smith have made many changes to Punke's speculative but more-or-less historical account of Glass's revenge, but the most significant is this: Here, Glass has had a native American wife (she is dead and shown occasionally in flashback) and he is accompanied on the fateful trapping expedition by his half-Pawnee son. To abandon him, his colleagues have to murder the teenage boy first.
And so, the good guys and the bad guys are clearly delineated in this movie. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy makes him powerfully unrepentant) is not merely a thief, he's also a murderer; the young and much-coerced James Bridger (the wonderfully gawky Will Poulter) is an accessory after the fact, forced to follow Fitzgerald or get left behind himself. (Bridger became a well-known mountain man in his own right; exactly which men were left to tend Glass is a subject of some debate among historians.) Most importantly, in Inarritu's version, Glass is not some crazed obsessive, risking his miraculously preserved life just to retrieve his gun, but rather a justifiably vengeful father.
Although much of The Revenant was actually shot in British Columbia and Alberta, the film follows that vengeful father across the vast landscapes of the American West and finds its integrity in depicting the grandeur of the land and the harshness of living on it. From the opening shot of a forest weirdly submerged in a river of flowing water to a remarkable scene where Glass stumbles upon a bison herd, The Revenant is visually breathtaking, thanks to Lubezki's cinematography. Reportedly, Inarritu insisted on shooting most of the film in natural light, and the payoff is a remarkable naturalism, both hard and sweeping.
Another intriguing aspect of the film is its depiction of the indigenous people, divided into various competing tribes, sometimes viciously attacking each other and the Europeans, sometimes happy to engage in peaceful trade. The Americans mainly shoot first and ask questions later, and Glass's uniquely sympathetic interactions with aboriginal characters seem more a function of making him a likeable figure than of crafting a believable depiction of his milieu.
Meanwhile, the wily French traders are more interested in conducting business with the natives – or enslaving their women. It would seem there's more than a few cultural stereotypes there, but it's a testament to Inarritu's film that they never overwhelm his depiction of the complex and varying relationships between aboriginal and European.
And then there's the issue of whether the Oscar-less DiCaprio will finally get his Academy Award for this role. He deserves it. Glass's throat is mauled by the bear so he can't speak, and he spends most of the film alone: DiCaprio is called on to depict the man's desperation, grief and searing anger almost entirely through his eyes and he does it with remarkable depth, turning Glass's endurance into a steadfastness both physical and emotional.
Still, the film is imperfect. Occasionally, Inarritu, as though indulging the manifest talents of his cinematographer, creates scenes where Glass's survival in the midst of this dangerous land is so improbable a viewer has to laugh. DiCaprio has many mighty moments here; he also has one or two near-misses that are worthy of the Road Runner.
Finally, there is the puzzling ending, in which the director, who has laboured so successfully to create the unrelenting hardness of this piece, seems uncertain how to extract himself from Glass's bloodthirsty quest. Inarritu is Mexican: Perhaps, even as he positions himself for another Oscar nomination, he is still enough of an outsider to Hollywood to be sensitive to its potentially abusive cultural power as it elevates heroes and banishes villains. Certainly, he declines to resolve the dramatic conundrum that is the revenge of Hugh Glass.