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 for viewing 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 an already 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 native 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 an 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’s 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 a Native American warrior searching for a daughter who’s been kidnapped by a group of French trappers. Working with co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith, Iñárritu also sees fit to give Glass a Native American 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. The much-heralded bear attack is indeed staged with panting, slobbering, bloodletting verisimilitude, but in case that isn’t excruciating enough, Iñárritu confects all manner of ways to make Glass suffer, from cauterizing his own throat wound with a boiling slurry of buckshot and dirt to a stunt involving a horse that recalls Jack London’s snowy state of nature at its most pitilessly indifferent.
In fact, it’s at this moment in “The Revenant” — when the story goes over a literal cliff — that many viewers are likely to feel that the movie has gone off its own deep end, entering an unforgiving territory of visceral shocks and hopelessly diminishing returns. This is when Iñárritu seems less interested in telling a superbly crafted story than proving something about his own creative prowess, which has been fetishized in recent interviews that recount the physical extremes he and his star suffered in the name of artistic commitment. Iñárritu is so consumed by virtuosity that he makes it nearly impossible not to be impressed by “The Revenant.”
But that’s not the same as being moved or even convinced by it — just as the most savage spectacle of manly endurance doesn’t automatically confer deeper meaning or moral weight. 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.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong frontier combat and violence, including gory images, a sexual assault, obscenity and brief nudity. 156 minutes.