The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:



Back from the Dead

20th Century Fox
 156 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed byAlejandro Inarritu 
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy

Over the last two decades, and through five Oscar nominations and several more near-nominations, Leonardo DiCaprio has cemented the unenviable reputation as the best actor of his generation (he’s now 41) never to win an Oscar. Based on the prevailing media consensus, that status is likely to change in a few weeks, courtesy of his physically demanding role in Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant. Ironically, his portrayal of a man left for dead after being attacked by a grizzly bear isn’t his best work by far, but he’s finally in the right place and the right role at the right time, one of the weaker years for male lead performances in general. And, after what he endured to make this movie, no one is likely to begrudge him the Oscar.


The Revenant is based on the real life saga of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman in the early 1800’s whose companions were forced to abandon him in order to have a realistic chance for their own survival. Despite being abandoned, Glass made his way some 200 miles through the Dakota badlands to safety, a feat that previously inspired a 1971 Richard Harris movie, Man in the Wilderness, and the 2002 novel on which the current film is based.


In The Revenant, director Alejandro G. Inarritu and co-screenwriter Mark Smith take considerable liberties with the actual story of Glass’s survival. To be fair, Inarritu doesn’t claim that this is an accurate depiction of Glass’s adventure. The primary deviation isn’t even in the script but in the locale. Instead of the relatively flat land along the Missouri River over which Glass really traveled, Inarritu substitutes some visually spectacular but incredibly rugged locales in the Canadian Rockies.


In the film, Glass is hired by a fairly large party of trappers to guide them through the wilderness. The party is ambushed and most of their members killed in an attack by Native Americans. The remainder, under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), leave their furs behind and start the long overland.trek to safety. Later, Glass is attacked and badly mauled by a grizzly bear. Although Glass is still alive, the others simply can’t carry him through the treacherous mountain passes, so Captain Henry reluctantly decides to leave him behind to die. Two volunteers (for extra money), the veteran Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and the young Jim Bridger (later the famous mountain man, played here by Will Poulter) stay behind, along with Glass’s son (Forrest Goodluck), the product of his marriage to a now dead Native American woman.


Unfortunately for Glass, Fitzgerald doesn’t want to wait for him to die from his wounds and tries to murder him. When Glass’s son interferes, Fitzgerald does kill the younger man and tells Bridger, who was away at the time, that Glass’s son simply disappeared. When Glass does recover and begins to slowly make his way back to the party’s destination, he knows what Fitzgerald did and is now driven by a desire for revenge.


Although the role of Hugh Glass may not be Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance, it’s certainly his most grueling. He spent months outdoors on location, in temperatures that were frequently below zero. Glass’s trek includes hardships and indignities such as eating raw buffalo meat, jumping off cliffs into whitewater rapids, and removing the innards from a dead horse so that he can find warmth and shelter inside the carcass. Most of DiCaprio’s performance is sheer physical acting, without dialogue, while wearing heavy coats that mask his body language. It’s still an impressive performance.


In my mind, Tom Hardy actually does a better job than DiCaprio in an admittedly more showy, villainous role. His Fitzgerald is a good outdoorsman, but he’s also a whiner, complainer, and conniver, given to explain and rationalize his actions at length. It’s a attention-grabbling role, and Hardy makes the most of it.


The real star of The Revenant is neither DiCaprio nor Hardy but, rather, director Inarritu, who paints a grim picture of frontier life. The Western frontier of the 1820’s was a harsh, cruel place as Inarritu demonstrates over and over again. The Americans and the Native Americans are equally savage, as the initial battle demonstrates. It’s a hectic tableau as a man manages to hack or beat an enemy to death only to be in turn killed a moment later. With the guns of that era only being single-shot, the battle quickly becomes vicious hand-to-hand combat, as visceral as any I’ve seen. There’s a third group involved in the bloodshed as well, some French trappers who are the ones responsible for inciting the Native Americans to attack, and they prove more duplicitous than anyone else in the movie other than Fitzgerald. The movie’s brutality isn’t limited to human beings either; Inarritu shows a pack of wolves attacking and eventually bringing down a buffalo.


Of course, the single most intense scene in The Revenant involves the bear attack. Inarritu used CGI quite judiciously, combining a computer-generated bear with Leonardo DiCaprio being yanked around in a harness by stuntmen, in a scene that lasts nearly ten minutes, The director also studied footage of an actual bear attack on a man who stumbled into its enclosure at a zoo and noted that the bear moved almost at random instead of making a concerted effort to kill. Inarritu incorporated that same movement into the film’s attack scene, and the effect is one of the most seamless and realistic of any CGI work I’ve seen, a far better use of the technology than employed in most superhero and outer space sagas.


Unfortunately, as he did in Birdman, Inarritu employs some mystical fantasy elements here, as the badly wounded Glass imagines happier times with his wife and son, including a sequence in which her spirit rises from the ground. Now, I can appreciate a man who’s nearly dead having visions or hallucinations about a happier time in his life, but Inarritu overdoes these scenes, to the extent where, in the later stages of the film, they detract from the central storyline.


Despite this one stumble, however, The Revenant is a powerful movie, a testimonial to the spirit and will of one remarkable man. Toward that end, Inarritu has created a West unlike that depicted in most movies, one that is incredibly violent and cruel, but also spectacularly beautiful. The director was also fortunate to have one of our best actors immerse himself completely in the project. A “revenant” is one who returns, and the title of the film is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy at Oscar time, as the producers return to the stage time after time to collect their awards. 

Read other reviews of The Revenant:


The Revenant (2015) on IMDb