In 1823, a fur trapper named Hugh Glass was mauled by a bear in South Dakota, left to die by his colleagues Thomas Fitzpatrick and Jim Bridger, and crawled some 200 miles back to what then passed for civilization. That basic premise, along with a few morbidly fascinating details about how the severely injured Glass made it through the bitter Dakota winter, provide the factual basis for Alejandro G. Iñárritu's dramatization of Glass' odyssey, a gorgeously filmed but oddly soulless survival thriller.
As Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio, who has just a handful of lines in the movie, certainly convinces us of his character's physical struggles. Tom Hardy, as Fitzpatrick, gives us a fairly standard bad guy to boo and hiss, though at least his villainy is couched in terms of shallow self-preservation instead of any kind of "evil". But the real star of The Revenant is the spectacular scenery, shot mostly in natural light by Emmanuel Lubezki. If it seems reminiscent of Terrence Malick films – most obviously The New World, also set in rugged early America – it's because Lubezki happens to be Malick's regular director of photography.
Beyond the ravishing cinematography and a handful of brutal action scenes, however, there's nothing particularly special about The Revenant. Oh, I liked it well enough, both as a triumph of filmmaking in harsh conditions and as a blow-by-blow account of Glass' journey across the Dakotas, but it doesn't have much to say about the nature of revenge, or what made the real Hugh Glass tick.
A tacked-on subplot, involving a tribe of Arikara Indians searching for a missing girl, doesn't help. Yes, it adds a sense of urgency – whenever Glass gets a moment to rest and lick his wounds, here come the Indians! – but it turns the story into a generic survival tale (Glass could be anyone) instead of a saga of vengeance, although dramatic structure assures us that we will indeed see a confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald in the third act.
I was relieved that Iñárritu – one of those filmmakers whose work I never particularly like, though I continue to watch for cultural literacy's sake – doesn't indulge in jump scares or shock value. The Revenant, for all its harshness, is fairly restrained in what it shows. Yes, it's a bit too long. Yes, its endless derring-do comes to defy belief. And yes, the movie is not nearly as profound as it thinks it is. But it does put you in the snowy Dakota wilderness in 1823, and since a primary goal of any film is to transport its audience, on that front The Revenant is a smashing success.