Beautiful and grueling, Alejandro Inarittu's The Revenant (2015) retells the story of Hugh Glass and the bear for 21st-century movie audiences. The film's fundamental problem is that the story, although savagely gripping, has no real resonance -- in fact, Glass' travails are so excessive as to verge on the comical. In effect, the story has always been freakish, a man versus wilderness tale so grotesquely horrific as to contain nothing to which an audience can really relate. Curiously enough, the oddly remote and abstract aspect of the story eludes artists interested in the tale -- estimable writers and film-makers have invested vast resources in a story that remains, for mysterious reasons, resolutely inert. John Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska, wrote a cycle of verse epics on themes arising from the conquest of the American West -- the second epic in this cycle was the saga of Hugh Glass, a poem that has a narrative arc similar to Inarittu's film because it emphasizes the hero's revenge on those who left him to die. (This is an element of the story that is historically inaccurate -- Glass who was an enlisted man in the army did not take revenge on his superiors involved in abandoning him in the open grave in the Yellowstone country; although he seems to have contemplated revenge, he did not act on those impulses.) Neihardt's version of the story has been long forgotten as has Frederick Manfred's novel Lord Grizzly, published in 1956 and a contender for a National Book Award. (Manfred lived in a fabulous eagles-nest, an eyrie overlooking the Blue Mounds in Laverne, Minnesota -- the place is now the visitor center for Blue Mounds State Park). Hugh Glass' saga was the subject of a film starring Richard Harris and John Huston, Man in the Wilderness released in 1971 -- some elements of that film have found their way into Inarittu's movie, most importantly a kind of barge that the mountain men drag through the shallows of the rivers in both pictures. Roger Zelazny, the science fiction writer, put Glass' story in outer space and Inarittu credits a recent novel as well for his inspiration. None of these versions is successful -- the simple problem is that Glass' horrifying adventure is a situation not a story and this situation, involving a terribly mangled and wounded man creeping across six-hundred miles of howling wilderness really can't be filmed. Attempts to put the story on the screen result in tedium -- there are really only so many ways to film someone's agony. (In Lord Grizzly, I think, the hero allows maggots to feast on the rotting flesh on his back, plucking off the squirming worms to eat them from time to time and, in that fashion, subsisting, in effect, on his own decaying tissue.)
Glass was a mountain man who was attacked by a grizzly bear and mauled to the point that his death was reasonably anticipated. Paralyzed, he was left with two men, Fitzgerald and the young Jim Bridger, who were supposed to stand vigil as the wounded man died. The fur traders who were affiliated with the U. S. army were under attack by Absaroka Indians -- in this film, Ree warriors. Fitzgerald and Bridger panicked and fled, leaving Glass to die in the wilderness. But, somehow, Glass revived, crawled 600 miles to a fort in Nebraska where he confronted the men who had left him in the snowy mountains near the headwaters of the Yellowstone. In Inarritu's film, Glass has a teenage son by a Pawnee woman to whom he is married. Ree raiders have destroyed the Pawnee village, a group of earth-mound huts like yurts on the open prairie and before the film starts, Glass' wife has been killed. The movie starts with a bravura combat sequence involving an attack by the Ree Indians on the fur traders who retreat to their crude barge -- most of the men are killed and, as they retreat, Glass gets mauled by the bear. (The extended sequence of the bear attack is exceptionally effective and terrifying.) Glass' son stays with his father but is murdered by Fitzgerald when the men panic as the Ree war-party hunts them. The death of Glass' son motivates the hero to herculean efforts so that he can survive to inflict revenge on Fitzgerald -- this is accomplished in a man-to-man duel so spectacularly gory and cringe-inducing (fingers are cut off with an axe and the characters repeatedly stab one another until the snow on which they are battling is completely "encarnadined" as Shakespeare says in Macbeth "making the (white) one red." This brings the film to an end but not a climax or conclusion -- the movie just sags to a stop as if exhausted. The Revenant is shot in long takes that emphasize the brutality of the action (the violence is not interrupted by cuts) and so the gruesome events seemsremarkably unmediated, direct, and authentic. An example is the bear attack, a four or five minute sequence, involving the huge animal first mauling Glass, then, ambling away so that the hero can get his gun, and, then, a prolonged hand-to-hand fight with the rifle fired into the bear at close-range, Glass knifing the beast, and, then ,both of them suddenly dropping off a small cliff to land with a thud on the forest floor beneath them, an impact that half knocks the breath out of the audience. This stunt is repeated a couple hours later when Glass fleeing the Ree war-party on horseback rides right off a hundred-foot cliff, ending the chase spectacularly as the horse and rider falls down into an evergreen tree. (The horse is killed and half-disemboweled by the fall, something that turns out to be convenient when Glass has to hide inside the animal's carcass during an ensuing blizzard.) The scene where Glass drops off the cliff horseback is completely surprising, but weirdly without suspense -- we don't know that the cliff is anywhere nearby and, when the horse falls, we register this with a sense of amazement that is without real fear or, even, concern. The special effect, accomplished without cutting, is so realistic and matter-of-fact, that we have a sense of nonchalance about the whole thing. Obviously, Glass can't die or the film will end. While watching this scene and admiring its technical brilliance, I couldn't help but thinking that it wasn't really exciting -- and, in this respect, I compare the horse-jump with the infinitely more exciting (because cut for suspense) jump that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid make into the plunge-pool of a waterfall in their film. At the conclusion of the movie, I noticed that the filmmaker engaged the services of about a dozen CGI special effects firms and, although the movie has a harsh, documentary feeling, I assume that it is rife with highly sophisticated digital trickery.
In many ways, the film that The Revenant most resembles is the Robert Redford vehicle, Jeremiah Johnson, a similarly freakish and violent saga about "liver-eating" Johnson's' vendetta against the Indians that killed his family. Both films are notable for their scrupulous authenticity and their beautiful photography. In The Revenant, the war parties making their way along half-frozen rivers have the statuesque beauty of old photographic plates by Edward S. Curtis -- the landscapes are immense, splendid, and daunting. This is the kind of movie in which a man doesn't fall into the river without being carried over massive, icy waterfalls. The opening scenes, involving an elk shot dead in a flooded forest, evoke Tarkovsky's drowned woods and there is a ruined chapel that looks as if it were frescoed by Greek or Russian orthodox monks -- it's presence in the Rocky Mountains north of Wyoming makes no sense at all. (Inarittu also installs in the film a reference to his previous movie, Birdman, a shot of a comet or meteor falling to earth, part of the flaming projectile, in fact, plunging into an icy river.) There are two incredible sequence, again executed in continuous takes -- in one scene, Glass crawls up an embankment to see a great herd of furry bison harried by wolves: it is a majestic image of raw nature, indifferent to human beings. In a shot near the end of the film, Glass fires his muzzle-loader and, then, fifteen seconds later, we see an immense avalanche pouring down a funnel in the face of a mountain three miles away. Again, the image suggests nature and titanic natural forces that have nothing to do with our puny existence. The Revenant is beautiful, horrific, but emotionally remote.