First published by Real Crime Magazine
Some stories are so big and so compelling that they can survive any mutilation. Hugh Glass was a genuine fur trapper of the early nineteenth century, who really did, after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by the men assigned to give him due burial, manage to make his way back, alone and horrifically wounded, some 200 miles to Fort Kiowa. Yet he was also a folk hero whose exploits were already being mythologised within his own lifetime. Mixing actual events, Michael Punke’s 2002 novelisation, and some further embellishments of their own, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman) and his co-writer Mark L. Smith have crafted an immersive oater epic of tall tales and true that rewrite the history of the west – and of the western.
The Revenant has Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) not just surviving his injuries and the elements, but also seeking revenge against fellow frontiersman Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) for the murder of his own (invented) half-breed son, and being hunted by a Ree chieftain who, in a neat inversion of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), is in pursuit of his own abducted daughter. Haunted by dreams that blend ruined churches with native spiritualism, Glass traverses a shifting frontier where civilisation and savagery belong in differing measures to all sides. Glass is traumatised by the memories of his son’s Pawnee mother being murdered by a rampaging Lieutenant, but then he himself encroaches upon the territory of bear cubs and their mother, in an encounter that will end in similar violence to all parties.
DiCaprio may just nab an Oscar for his raw, grizzled performance, but the real star here is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who shoots tight and close to his characters, and takes in the vast outdoor vistas almost incidentally. Here man is the greatest wilderness.