2 stars | Drama | R | 156 min.
Leonardo DiCaprio grunts, wheezes, crawls and brawls his way through an Oscar-caliber performance in a film designed as a monument to
the greed, venality and Darwinian aggression through which this country was forged.
It's called "The Wolf of Wall Street," and it's available on a digital platform near you.
As in that 2013 movie about a rapacious Wall Street executive, DiCaprio delivers a commanding, physically daunting turn in "The Revenant," as a man whose surpassing strengths and near-fatal flaws beg for larger allegorical meaning. Playing Hugh Glass, a 19th-century trapper who's attacked by a grizzly and left for dead in the Missouri Territory, DiCaprio seeks once and for all to push himself and his audience to the limit. Banishing all memories of the blue-eyed teen idol of "Titanic," he hides the baby face he's been cursed with into his 40s behind a fastidiously unpretty rictus of physical suffering and existential despair.
Based on Michael Punke's novel about the real-life Glass — who in 1823 was mauled by a bear then limped hundreds of miles to confront the men who abandoned him without food or supplies — "The Revenant" takes a larger-than-life story into the preposterous dimensions of a tall tale, simultaneously inflating and reducing Glass to a Paul Bunyan-like figure of superhuman strength and stamina.
But because this movie has been directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance"), it's not content with those outsize, if simplistic, contours. Punctuated by dreamy imagery and moments of arty transcendence, "The Revenant" ultimately lacks the courage of its most voyeuristically barbarous, even sadistic convictions. It's a death trip disguised as spiritual awakening, its breathtaking sweep and scale belying an essential pettiness at its core.
Admittedly, even viewers who don't buy Iñárritu's ersatz depth will find themselves bowled over by the sheer aesthetic and technical firepower he throws at it. "The Revenant" opens with a magnificently filmed and choreographed fight scene, during which a group of trappers is trapped by Arikara fighters in a chaotic ambush, every move captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki with startling fluidity and intimacy. Unfolding in a graceful mirroring of hand-to-hand combat, the sequence possesses unmistakable grandeur that Lubezki reprises throughout "The Revenant," whether Glass and his men are dwarfed by soaring, spire-like trees, imposing snow-covered mountain ranges or icy river gorges — all of which they traverse mostly on foot.
Glass' story has been told before on film, most notably by Richard Harris in the 1971 drama "Man in the Wilderness." But "The Revenant" shares DNA with a raft of other movies, from the classic exploration adventure "Black Robe" and Terrence Malick's lyrical odes to the natural world to John Ford's "The Searchers," whose narrative of captivity is turned on its head here in a subplot involving an American Indian warrior searching for a daughter who has been kidnapped by a group of French trappers. Working with co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith, Iñárritu also sees fit to give Glass an American Indian wife and mixed-race son, who provide convenient emotional cover for a story that otherwise would have been propelled merely by that tried and true — and tired and trite — motivator: revenge.
The monumentality of "The Revenant," combined with DiCaprio's bravura, virtually wordless performance, suggests a film that's About Something, in this case man's inhumanity to man, the brutality of Manifest Destiny, the primal fight between honor and cowardice and the enduring power of the human spirit. We're meant to believe that Glass embodies the latter — an assumption suggested by comparing him to a fellow trapper named Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy with drawling, murderous venom) and underlined by daydreams in which Glass communes beatifically with the spirit of his absent wife (Grace Dove).
Those helpful nudges notwithstanding, the audience is less likely to care about where Glass stands on the ethical gray scale than to revel in what "The Revenant" ultimately seems to be about, which is physical duress at its most agonizing and repellent. Thanks to Lubezki's stunning cinematography and Ryuichi Sakamoto's hauntingly dispassionate score, the fight that's most compelling throughout "The Revenant" is the one between the beauty of its cinema and the brutality of its tale.
Despite the literal and figurative pains it takes to persuade viewers of its own importance, "The Revenant" can't escape the clutches of crippling self-regard. In movies, as in life, some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.