The Revenant is an upcoming Western by recent Best Picture winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Will it be any good? Let’s take a closer look at the 2003 novel (grab it from us!) it’s based on, written by US ambassador Michael Punke. I’ll be careful not to spoil anything important and just give some insight into the story and tone.
The premise: The year is 1823 and Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is one of the best trappers around. Working for a well-known fur company, his work consists mostly of scouting out dangerous areas, be it for delivering messages or for making sure travellers reach isolated outposts. Usually skilled with evading all sorts of dangers, one day Glass runs into a grizzly bear and her cubs. A fight ensues in which Glass actually manages to kill the bear, but he gets horribly mauled. Seeing that the seemingly mortally wounded will slow everyone down, the trek decides to move on and leaves two men behind. Criminal Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and shy teenager Bridger (Will Poulter) get ordered to stay with Glass until he’s dead, then bury him and come after once it’s done.
Afraid of getting caught by the nearby hostile Natives of the Arikara tribe, cowardly Fitzgerald doesn’t hold out for long and decides to just grab Glass’s stuff and take off with the boy. Which of course is a big mistake as Glass is far from dead, and the healthier he’ll get, the more his thirst for vengeance intensifies. This seems to spoil a lot, but in fact it covers only the first few chapters of the novel. The Revenant was mostly announced as an epic adventure of one man crawling over 200 miles to exert revenge, but there’s way more to it. As in other recent survival stories such as Wild, there are large chunks of flashbacks detailing how the grim Glass became such a respected authority and how he ended up on his most recent journey. Glass’s earlier life is actually spectacular from the get-go. His background would easily justify a whole movie for itself – or even an Assassin’s Creed game. Let’s just say that he wasn’t just always part of Caucasian frontiersmen hunting fluffy rabbits.
As for the main ordeal: yeah, it’s pretty much a more extreme 127 Hours. With several broken bones, terrible gashes and a brutal fever Glass easily suffers the worst condition, so it’ll be really stunning to see how he spites death and overcomes it. By somehow finding food, by evading deadly animals and enemy fractions. There’s a lot of sneaking, boating, climbing and use of distractions, and we regularly switch over to both Bridger/Fitzgerald and the rest of the trek. I’m not gonna spoil anything from the last third, so let me just dabble with it. Unless Iñárritu changes a lot from the novel, don’t expect too much from the vengeance aspect. There’s no Open Range shoot-out or any sort of epic Unforgiven stand-off to look forward to. The Revenant does deal with revenge and I won’t tell how it’s resolved, but Punke isn’t interested in any manly action pay-off. It’s more interested in showing the Western wildness as a hellish place, in being fascinated how men survived in it and how a man could ever choose to voluntarily go there for a living.
What’s not to like? The story may be a little too forward at times. If ‘surviving in the wild’ isn’t something that resonates with you, The Revenant might not be for you. It doesn’t believe in twists. It doesn’t have the fun of Castaway. There are barely any female characters (at the time of this article, not one actress is listed on IMDB) and the overall portrayal of Natives will possibly be one-sided and overly negative. If you equate revenge with action and the spectacular triumphing over dozens of bad guys, this isn’t your kind of movie.
But is a good, cinematic story? Yes, it is and both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy will probably be aces in their specific roles. DiCaprio could easily earn another Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the grumpy, unkillable trapper Glass. For Iñárritu it’ll be a whole new challenge though. He has done four rather solid dramas with Babel, Amores Perros, Biutiful and 21 Grams, then won big with his black comedy Birdman. He’ll need to ape the Coens’s flexibility to make this a success. The Coens had their comedies, then went on to amaze with both True Grit and No Country for Old Men. The Revenant is very much like the latter, both in tone and the realistic, dangerous world it crafts for the leads. It has pretty much everything to become a great catch, therefore please expect The Revenant to trap your curiosity.