REVIEW: 'The Revenant' not for the faint of heart

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Director Alejandro Inarritu (L) poses with the award for Best Director and Best Picture-Drama alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, who poses with the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama for "The Revenant," backstage at the 73rd Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California, January 10, 2016. | REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – Before The Revenant ever hit the screen, Hollywood was awash with descriptions of the film's raw, visceral and gory depictions of life and death in the untamed wilderness of the American West. Those descriptions are entirely accurate.

Then, Inarritu revives the theme at the end of the film to drive home the point – no matter how much a human spirit may demand it, vengeance is best left to God.

The Revenant is a gut check at every musket shot, scalping, fall, near drowning, murder and bear mauling, all depicted in exacting detail in the frigid, muddy reaches of what is now South Dakota – though the film was shot in Canada and, of all places, the mountains of Argentina.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers another profound performance as Hugh Glass, a real wilderness explorer who helped lead an expedition up the Missouri River in 1823. His performance, however, is one nearly devoid of dialogue as he is reduced to a series of grunts, growls and groans as a result of injuries received during an encounter with a protective mother bear.

It was this supposed "bear rape scene," as Drudge Report termed it, which generated the most pre-release buzz about the movie. DiCaprio repeatedly denied any such vulgarity between man and animal in the movie, but it is easily understood how viewers who previewed the film might have seen the incident as DiCaprio's Glass being violated. There's a type of deep connection between the bear and the man in the sequence where the bear, protecting its cubs, tears into Glass and then returns to maul him again.

The wounds received in the four-minute scene are graphically depicted and serve as a vehicle for Glass's torment throughout the rest of the film. The character's real wounds, however, are far deeper.

Director Alejandro Inarritu (Birdman) provides viewers a cinematic experience quite similar in scope to Terrence Malick's World War II drama, The Thin Red Line, complete with Glass at times dreaming of his deceased Pawnee wife and his son, Hawk, whose murder in the film serves as the catalyst for Glass's pursuit of justice and his motivation to live (in Malick's film, a soldier is depicted dreaming of his wife and home in the United States).

Inarritu's approach to depicting Native Americans in the film also deserves mention, and it is this depiction that provides deep moments of reflection for viewers.

Inarritu clearly shows the Arikara (or Ree) Indians as proficient killers, but they are not killers without a cause. The band that troubles Glass and his comrades (including Tom Hardy, who turns in a stellar performance as villain John Fitzgerald), are in pursuit of whites in the area because they believe they have absconded with the chief's daughter. In reality, it is the French trappers in the area, who have a trading relationship with the Arikara, who have taken the girl and abused her. This abuse includes a rape, though no nudity is shown.

In one of the more poignant stretches of dialogue, the Arikara chief lights into a French trapper for the white's theft of Arikara land and resources. The scene is rife with tension as viewers have already seen how the warriors made short work of the majority of Glass's troop of trappers and boatmen. 

It is also a Native American who provides the theological thread that runs through the movie. In a scene in which Glass would have died without help on the frozen landscape, he is rescued, fed (raw buffalo liver) and protected by Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud), a Pawnee who set out for revenge when his family was killed by whites. Along the way, Hikuc explains, he learned that revenge is best left to "the Creator."

This thread seems to perish in the successive narrow escapes Glass makes as he is driven on by his thirst for revenge. Then, Inarritu revives the theme at the end of the film to drive home the point – no matter how much a human spirit may demand it, vengeance is best left to God.

The Revenant is based on the book of the same name by Michael Punke, and gets the trials of tribulations of wilderness exploration in the early 1800s entirely correct.

The justification for the story, however, is grossly embellished.

Glass had no son named Hawk, killed by a man named Fitzgerald. The kernel of truth in the story, according to his own journals, is that Glass resented being left for dead and undertook a journey of hundreds of miles in pursuit of his prized rifle, which Fitzgerald had taken when he left Glass to die.

Glass finally caught up with Fitzgerald in 1824, but was not allowed to demand satisfaction as Fitzgerald had enlisted in the U.S. Army. Fitzgerald's commander returned Glass's rifle to him with little fanfare. The real story is hardly reminiscent of the final scene of the movie where Fitzgerald loses his scalp and his life.

Still, the film will likely sweep the Oscars this year. Inarritu won the Golden Globe for best director and best motion picture drama at the 73rd Annual Golden Globes Jan. 10.

DiCaprio won best actor in a motion picture drama for his work in the film. The Revenant is rated R for extreme violence, coarse language, brief full nudity not involving sexuality, and a rape scene (without nudity).