“It’s okay, son. I know you want this to be over.” This is a brave voiceover to open a movie that consists of two-and-a-half hours of almost nonstop violence, injury, and privation. In context, it serves as a father’s comforting words to his son. But it could as easily represent a filmmaker’s warning to his audience.
Fortunately, while Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is frequently a grueling experience, it is also a profoundly rewarding one, a film that balances beauty and brutality in extraordinary equipoise. Based on the 2002 novel by Michael Punke (itself based on the experiences of the real-life fur trapper Hugh Glass), the movie tells a primal story of survival and vengeance. In 1823, a large hunting party was on the verge of completing its six-month mission in the wintry wildernesses of Montana and South Dakota when it’s set upon by a band of warriors from the Ree tribe. After most of the men are killed in the encounter, those remaining ask their experienced tracker, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), to guide them safely back to their barracks outpost.
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Glass, however, is soon mauled by a bear, and though he manages to kill the animal, he’s direly wounded—his throat slashed open and his back torn to ribbons. Presuming his imminent death, the leader of the expedition, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), leaves him behind with three men to bury him when the time comes: Glass’s half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck); another young hunter, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter); and an older man, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), with mercenary motives and no love for Glass. In short order, Fitzgerald kills Hawk and tricks Bridger into leaving Glass for dead.