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In 1823, while employed as a scout for a fur-trading expedition, the Pennsylvania-born trapper Hugh Glass was savagely mauled by a grizzly bear in the wilds of present-day South Dakota. His party, fearing inclement weather, dwindling resources and attacks from neighboring Arikara Indians, left him behind. Glass was presumed dead, but like his peers in the pantheon of great 19th century mountain men, he had developed a rugged, hard-won imperishability. He crawled and scraped and dragged himself hundreds of miles through the woods — treating his wounds with maggots, shrouding himself in bear hide, scavenging roots and berries — and miraculously found his way back to his group's home fort. His motivation, according to the historical record, was revenge.
The Glass story was immortalized in Frederick Manfred's 1954 novel "Lord Grizzly," and was also filmed in 1971 as "Man of the Wilderness," starring Richard Harris and John Huston. In 2002, Michael Punke, who moonlights as a novelist when he isn't fulfilling his duties as U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization, published a novel about Glass titled "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge." (A "revenant" is a ghost.) This is the source material for Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's much-vaunted new film, which is visceral and severe and exhausting.
It's often said of Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" that it modernized boxing movies by putting the camera inside the ring; rather than a wide-shot, we were thrust into the desperate subjectivity of the fighters, where we could feel their speed and sweat. With "The Revenant," Iñárritu might have aimed to do something similar for the Western. We are often looking over DiCaprio's shoulder — as disoriented as he is — or nestled up uncomfortably close to his face, as he's being brutally injured in one of a thousand ways. The audience tends to find itself in the middle of the action, except when we don't, in which case we're given gorgeous, hyperchromatic landscapes, as vibrant as Hudson River School paintings.
There's something essentially admirable about this — about taking a lost chapter of American history (represented, for many of us, by a couple of textbook illustrations of Lewis and Clark and maybe a Davy Crockett hat) and rendering it with vivid, jarring intensity. To remind us that life in America was relatively impossible then, that it was dank and unhappy and ludicrously dangerous, seems like an artistically serious project. In this sense it reminded me of Terrence Malick's "The New World." Who's to say this sort of thing isn't exactly what Hollywood does best? When Cinemascope was introduced — with its preposterously wide frame — Billy Wilder famously joked that the format would be ideal for filming "the love story of two dachshunds." He might have also mentioned bear attacks.
But there just isn't much to it, finally. Where "The New World" was tactile and dreamlike, granular in its revisionism — and the same could be said of Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man," another acid-Western death-march into the early American frontier — "The Revenant" is kind of a one-dimensional experience. Considering its budget and scope, you can't help but be surprised by its lack of ambition, by how little it asks of us. DiCaprio has been celebrated for his performance, but I don't think I noticed one. He certainly didn't seem to be enjoying himself, but if athletic masochism is our metric, I've seen worse. (Steve-O jumped into the ocean with a fish-hook through his cheek in "Jackass 2"; where was his Golden Globe?)
The film's flashes of magical realism are perfunctory and repetitive, and the revenge plot — a narrative engine so primal that Iñárritu clearly hoped it could sustain our attention on its own — feels overly manipulative and eventually becomes dwarfed by Glass' more immediate obstacles. The stakes are high, in other words, but they are also tiresome. Midway through, I realized I'd have to suspend all character identification, or even to actively root against Glass' survival, to finish the thing. By the time it was over, I'd already begun to forget it.