The ratio of misery to mercy is decidedly skewed in The Revenant, a brutal frontier drama set in 1820s America. Yet it is this very sparseness that ultimately makes the movie a potent meditation on benevolence, that most mysterious of human gestures. You can count the acts of mercy here on one hand, but they reverberate all the more for appearing in a world seemingly devoid of such a concept.
The Revenant opens in the midst of a fur-trading expedition, where director Alejandro González Iñárritu immediately immerses us in the grimy, ghastly particulars of this time and place. Dirt, entrails, greasy hair — it all mixes on the riverbank where the trappers are skinning animals, preparing for the long journey home. This industrious mess, however, is nothing compared to the bloodbath that ensues when a band of Native Americans suddenly attacks. Arrows thunk against trees and sickeningly tear into skin. Men grapple on the ground, snorting out their last breaths. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh off the single-take showmanship of Birdman, recreate something similar here, weaving in and out of the chaos for minutes on end without a noticeable cut. Whatever “cheating” there might have been with the camerawork snuck past my eye; like the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the sequence is a masterstroke of sustained, seamless and cinematically coherent panic.
Only a small group of traders survives the assault. Among them is Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), an out-of-his-element captain; John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a cruel and coarse trapper for hire; and Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a scraggly tracker. Wounded, hungry and lost, they and a handful of others wander a gorgeous but frigidly indifferent landscape. Everything they experience — frozen rivers, jagged outcroppings, their own wounds — suggests they have no business being alive.
This includes, above all, the grizzly bear that Glass encounters while hunting in the woods. In an excruciating, elongated scene, Glass is clawed, bitten and thrown about as the camera impassively watches. It doesn’t even bother to move when the bear’s giant maw approaches, with drool dripping and foggy breath clouding the lens. It’s an astonishing King Kong moment — we’re shocked by the sheer ferocity of unbridled nature — and Glass is left on the verge of death.
A moral debate follows, as Glass’ companions must decide whether to shoot him to relieve him of his pain; to abandon him to an uncertain fate; or to lug him on a stretcher at the risk of slowing down their pace. The decision ultimately falls to Hardy’s Fitzgerald, whose wild eyes and unhinged evocations of God recall a combination of Klaus Kinski’s deranged explorer in Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Robert Mitchum’s sadistic preacher in The Night of the Hunter. It’s no spoiler to say Glass is left for dead under questionable circumstances, as the majority of the film charts his improbable recovery and unlikely survival as he crawls, stumbles and grimaces his way back to civilization.
We’re shocked by the sheer ferocity of unbridled nature.
If Glass’ quest seems incredulous, especially as he performs one death-defying feat after another, that’s not necessarily a weakness. The Revenant has an ethereal aura, one that suggests Glass has passed over into a place between life and death. He experiences otherworldly visions, which sometimes meld with flashbacks, where we learn that he had a child with a Native American and that both suffered greatly during a village attack. Then there are two instances in the film in which Glass seems to breathe his last and we get a point-of-view shot of the trees above him, reaching up to the sky. The wind roars and the trees oddly quiver. Is this the passing of his spirit? “Revenant,” after all, can refer to both a person who returns, and a person who returns as a ghost.
There is an unearthly nature to the camerawork as well. Beyond evoking an unbroken sense of immediacy, as it does in that opening assault sequence, Iñárritu and Lubezki’s preference for long, unbroken takes suggests an omniscient sort of observance. But rather than the compassionate gaze we get in something like Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, this is a deist point of view: the camera is perhaps mildly interested in what these dirty men are up to, but it’s just as likely to pan away from their struggling to take in something else. There is a wonderful shot, after Glass has ridden his horse off a cliff in a desperate attempt to escape pursuing Native Americans, in which the camera floats over the giant spruce he has disappeared into and lingers there, observing the rippling evergreen leaves. Unlike us in the audience, it has no desire to immediately rush down below and see if Glass is OK.
This focus on fauna is one of the rare respites the movie provides. If I didn’t mind the extended running time — and certainly cuts could have been made — it’s because I was often content to soak up the eerily beautiful Lubezki-framed landscapes, from a forest of trees that sprout mossy green spikes to golden leaves that are encased in ice. This may be frontier America, but it feels older, primordial — like a place humans aren’t yet meant to be.
So where is the mercy? Mostly in minor gestures that seemingly mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Passing through a massacred Native American village, where corpses lie rotting among rooting pigs, one of the younger traders (Will Poulter) notices a traumatized woman peeking out of a hut. Rather than alert his companion, he gently places a parcel of meat within her reach. Later, in his woeful wanderings, Glass comes across a lone Native American scavenging from a buffalo that had been downed by wolves. In a reverse gesture, he tosses a hunk of bloody muscle Glass’ way. These are miraculous acts of mercy, from one human to another. Sometimes, though, benevolence is as simple as a little creek of desperately needed water, stubbornly flowing between two frozen, snowy banks. Given all of the callousness The Revenant shows us, you have to wonder: why, in this dismal, Darwinian world, does such mercy exist at all?