The Revenant movie review - 'DiCaprio's performance is intense, focused, extraordinary'
Alejandro Inarritu's epic is compelling
In the early 1820s, just 40 years after independence and 20 since the French claims had been bought out for a song in the Louisiana Purchase, America's untamed west was up for grabs. This period has long been mythologised in American culture as a pure, even heroic time, but Alejandro G Inarritu's extraordinary new film depicts it as the squalid and vicious scramble for wealth and territory it really was.
The Revenant is based on a novel by Michael Punke, and the true story of Scots-Irish trapper and frontier guide Hugh Glass.
Though born in Pennsylvania, Glass made his name exploring the upper reaches of the Missouri River in what is now Montana and North and South Dakota. He was captured by Pawnee tribesmen and ended up marrying one of their women. Over time he became a thoroughly naturalised frontier American, and when we first meet him in The Revenant he's hunting deer in the wilderness with his half-breed son and some trapper colleagues. It's 1823, and Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is part of a large, army-led trapping expedition led by a well-meaning young officer called Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).
They're camped on the banks of the Missouri when their party is attacked by a band of Arikara Native Americans who wreak havoc with their arrows and blades and force an unseemly retreat.
Knowing that the Arikara are still in hot pursuit, Glass advises Captain Ashby to abandon their boat and continue overland towards the Yellowstone River. Another trapper, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), disagrees, and his resentment towards Glass grows as they hike through an inhospitable mountain range.
The party has stopped for the night and Glass is out looking for food when he chances on a female grizzly and her cubs: she attacks him not once but twice, ripping open his back and throat and throwing him about like a rag doll. Somehow, he manages to kill the animal, but ends up trapped underneath it in a ravine. He's eventually found by his colleagues, but Ashby decides that Glass will soon die and asks Fitzgerald and a young trapper called Bridger (Will Poulter) to stay behind and give him a Christian burial.
Glass's son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) stays too, but Fitzgerald soon grows weary of waiting and decides to speed things up. When Hawk catches him trying to smother Glass, Fitzgerald kills the boy, persuades Bridger that they're about to be attacked by Indians and leaves Glass half dead in a shallow grave.
But Glass doesn't die. He struggles out, tormented by grief, manages to set his broken leg and crawls off into the forest.
It's the start of an unimaginably gruelling 200-mile journey south towards the outpost of Fort Kiowa, and Glass will endure sub-zero temperatures, near-drowning and violent attacks while subsisting on roots, raw salmon and bits of bison. But he's driven on by the memory of his son's death and an overpowering desire for revenge.
It is, then, a simple story, and a film unencumbered with excessive dialogue. By my count Leo DiCaprio only mutters a couple of sentences in English, and a dozen or so more in Pawnee: in The Revenant his face and body do the talking, and his performance is intense, focused, extraordinary.
Indeed focus is the quality that defines Inarritu's long but almost unbearably gripping western drama, which starts at an extraordinarily high pitch and never loses its grim momentum.
The opening attack is handled with breathtaking fluency, as Inarritu's camera dances and skips through the pitched battle hardly dwelling on the shocking violence that's an everyday part of frontier life.
The bear encounter is one of the most visceral scenes I've ever seen, and the recovering Glass looks and seems more like an animal than a man, grunting and moaning and half hidden by a giant bear skin as he inches his way south, towards revenge.
The Revenant (16, 156mins)