The Revenant is sort of like the Gravity of frontier Westerns, visceral and thrilling in a way that supersedes narrative. It exists at this strange intersection of low pulp and high arthouse, like an acclaimed chef’s $100 riff on the sloppy Joe. I took no notes afterwards like I normally do, and if I had, I imagine they’d look like an old Batman fight scene. BANG! THUMP! ZIP! SQUISH! (That last one is the sound of a human being disemboweled, by the way.) It’s compelling in a sub-verbal way, more about ducking and shouting than wondering “what happens next” in the traditional sense. There aren’t even any smooth-talking Clooneys to distract you from the inherent malevolence of untamed nature and the moral relativism of the frontier. Imagine True Grit if every character was the Bear Man.
The Revenant opens in a freezing-looking, waterlogged forest, full of stinky, hirsute psychos who have apparently traded any idea of comfort for the opportunity to make big bucks trading beaver skins. Iñarritu’s obsessions with natural light and location shooting mean you can practically smell the swamp foot. So the boys of beaver division are milling about, spit-grilling game meat and talking about pelts and chicks, when the arrows start to fly. (Would you believe one of them hits a guy right in the neck?) The scene is filmed in the same tracking shot/swish-pan style Iñarritu used in Birdman, ping ponging from character to character as the fellas try to gather their booty and get the hell out of dodge before this horde of whooping savages can make necklaces out of their severed dicks. (Am I being gory? Gratuitous? Perhaps. But this a gory, gratuitous movie).
The opener is the rest of the film in miniature. In my conscious mind, I knew arrows don’t really fly like that. They don’t whizz by invisibly like bullets or snap necks from hundreds of yards away like sniper fire. But I was so engrossed in the sweat, grime, gore, and imminent fear of the escape attempt that I didn’t much care, not really. Everything is comically dirty. Or was it actually like that? The Revenant is a kind of paradox, where it seems needlessly cruel, but a useful tool to drive home the point that the wild West (the wild Northwest, in this case) was needlessly cruel. It’s like a two-hour adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s dead baby tree. A bit much? Probably. Reveling in its own gore? Definitely. Nihilistic, gleefully bleak, and gritty almost to the point of parody? Sure, but not without a purpose. It’s useful to be reminded that the “wild” in “wild West” didn’t just mean “free.”
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, and you’ll never believe this but he’s the strong, silent type. Haunted by some past trauma too horrible to bring up with his therapist and without any lady tying him down (gee, you think she might be dead?) he’s joined on this big beaver hunt by his adopted Pawnee son. The two of them try to help the wet-behind-the-ears good-guy captain (Domnhall Gleeson) navigate his way through the wilderness, beset by various, independent hordes of English, natives, and French, who periodically team up, split apart, and try to genocide each other (along with assorted kidnapping and rape). Fun!
His antagonist in this effort is John “Fitz” Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, who, true to form, is at least 50 percent unintelligible. Can we get this guy to play a Tory MP or a boxing ring announcer just as an experiment to see if he ever enunciates? Luckily, Hardy’s other acting tic is being endlessly watchable, even if his character in this isn’t particularly nuanced. Fitz begins the film as a loudmouth who hates Glass and doesn’t deviate much. (Would you believe he also hates injuns, and carries physical and psychological wounds from fighting them?) But the Fitz-and-Glass story is mostly just a framing device for the tale of the terrible frontier. As evidenced by the fact that Fitz’s most human moment comes when he’s describing what it was like to get scalped, and the feeling of steel scraping against his skull.
As in Gravity, there’s ample opportunity to pick The Revenant apart if you really wanted to, but… why? Sure, Fitz is kind of a cartoonish villain, but it’s easy to swallow my disbelief when I’m listening to such a charismatic rendering of what it’s like to get a hunk of scalp ripped off. Likewise, Glass is this unkillable frontier superman, who dies in more ways than Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and yet comes back every time, in ways that take it far beyond believability. But it’s all rendered so viscerally that you’re willing to go with it, even if I could’ve done with a few less up-the-nostril shots of Leo grimacing in anguish. Much has been made of how hard he seems to be trying to win that Oscar, and while I don’t deny his talent, I’m not sure pained drooling and blowing snot rockets at the camera is the highest display of it. I mean, it works, I just don’t think it’s that hard, relatively speaking.
All the grunting and dragging and drooling and snot gets a little old at times, but like Gravity did for space, The Revenant‘s visceral immediacy really drives home the inherent, pants-sh*tting terror of the frontier. Which is valuable, even when/if it’s embellished. One of its title cards quotes H.L. Mencken: “We are here and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine,” a sentiment that seems to sum up Fitz’s worldview and The Revenant as a whole. And it has an ending that’s equally satisfying. Not too tidy, but not leaving you feeling like you waded through a waist-deep river of drool for nothing either. I hope that when death comes it feels like that.
The bottom line with The Revenant is that it feels more like an experience than a movie. And that kind of cinema, the kind that really boots you out of your daily existence and into another time and place, is always welcome. Even when it’s kind of gross.
Grade: Three out of four buffalo skull pyramids.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.