Even though I know The Revenant (2016) was based on a book, I’m still going to say what I initially thought upon leaving that movie: I can’t imagine it ever being a book. This is what I love about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films – he conveys in actions and images what words cannot. I am a lover of books first, but I am equally a lover of those who have learned to master their chosen medium, and Iñárritu certainly has.
The Revenant is the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman in the 1800s who survives a grizzly bear attack in the South Dakota woods, only to be left for dead by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Miraculously, Glass survives and makes his way back to Fort Kiowa, where the other members of his hunting party are aghast at the betrayal. That’s the basic plot, the TL;dr of it, if you will. Man vs. nature, then man vs. man.
Survival stories are nothing new, so what makes The Revenant stand out is the way the story is told. Similar to his previous films, Iñárritu makes good use of silence. There is scant speech through the majority of Glass’s travel through the wilderness and there doesn’t need to be. We don’t need to hear an existential monologue of how badly Glass wants to survive. We don’t need a voiceover explaining to us his thoughts on his plight. True to the story, after having his throat slashed by the bear, there is little more than faint croaking and wheezing – Glass does not immediately get better because his needs to narrate the movie. This is a testament to Leo’s acting – he barely needs to say a word. With a superbly orchestrated score, the images drive the story forward, keeping us free from weighty exposition and gratuitous explanations.
The movie is not for the faint of heart. There is a fair amount of violence that, while graphic, serves to illustrate the brutality of the times. Even I, an ardent lover of gunfights and explosions, got a little queasy watching Leo pull organs out of a dead horse so he could crawl inside it Luke Skywalker style. For some, the long stretches of silence coupled with the copious bloodshed may be too much, but as someone who loves to watch a story unfold and loves to see in film what cannot be found in words, I thought it was simply brilliant.