By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2016)
“Nah, man…I gotta remember: NEVER get outta the boat!”
-from Apocalypse Now
If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Jack London and Joseph Conrad and watching countless adventure movies over the years, it’s this: never get out of the goddamn boat. Remember what happened in Apocalypse Now, when they got out of the boat? Aguirre, the Wrath of God? The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? Uh, Deliverance? It very rarely ends well.
Latest case in point: Alejandro Inarritu’s sprawling survivalist epic, The Revenant. Once “they” get out of the boat, everything goes to hell in a hand basket; in this case, an authentic, hand-woven hand basket crafted by authentic First Nation peoples, in an authentic rustic setting. Inarritu’s film is not only steeped in gritty and authentic Old West verisimilitude, but tells its tale in real time. OK, I’m exaggerating-it’s only 3 hours.
The story is set in the early 19th Century, “somewhere” in the Rocky Mountain region of the Louisiana Purchase (I assume, as there are Frenchmen wearing fur hats lurking about). Leo DiCaprio stars as a crackerjack woodsman named Hugh. He and his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) have hired on as guides for a pelt-hunting expedition. After the party is ambushed by Indians, Hugh leads the survivors into the deep woods. While temporarily separated from the party, Hugh is severely mauled by an actual “grizzly mom” (it is the film’s most harrowing scene, which is really saying a lot).
His compatriots find him, barely alive, and begin to carry him along. However, they soon find the terrain too daunting to navigate with a stretcher. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the more mercenary members of the party, suggests putting Hugh out of his misery so they can make tracks. The party’s Captain (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) briefly considers the option, but decides to leave Hugh in the care of Hawk and a young volunteer named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter…playing who I can only assume is the Jim Bridger of legend, since the screenwriters take no pains to elucidate). One more man is needed, but the Captain has to first sweeten the pot with the offer of a reward. Guess who steps up? If you guessed our mercenary friend with dubious motivations, you are correct.
What ensues earns what I like to call my “3G” rating (Grueling, Grinding, and Gruesome). It’s a quasi-biblical, “to hell and back” tale of betrayal, suffering, fortitude and (drum roll please)…redemption. It’s also a bit of the aforementioned for the viewer, as he or she is required to channel the patience of Job while awaiting the redemption part.
Which reminds me of a funny story. Around halfway through, I had to excuse myself for a few minutes (hey-let’s see you try making it through a 3 hour flick with a 59 year-old prostate…and fellow sufferers be warned that the sights and sounds of babbling brooks, surging rivers and roiling rapids abound throughout). Anyway, as I left the auditorium, I noted that the recovering but not yet fully ambulatory Leo was slowly, painfully, crawling through brambles. I go do my thing; when I return to my seat several minutes later, I note Leo is still slowly, painfully crawling through brambles. I whispered to my friend, “So I take it I didn’t miss anything?” He confirmed that my intuition was spot on.
While I stand by my conviction that the film would not have suffered from judicious trimming, it still has much to recommend it, particularly for fans of adventures like Black Robe, The New World, The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, Never Cry Wolf, or The Naked Prey. In context of its striking visual poetry, there is one film evoked that must have inspired Inarritu and/or his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and that is Letter Never Sent, Mikhail Kalatozov’s tale about a state-funded quartet of Russian geologists who become trapped by a wildfire while diamond-hunting in Siberia. The 1960 film was breathtakingly photographed by Sergey Urusevskiy, also renowned for his work on Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba (my review). Like Urusevskiy, Lubezki fuses natural light wide-angle photography with classically composed long shots and audacious hand-held takes that make you scratch your head and wonder “how in the hell did the camera operator shoot that without running into a tree?!”
The director and screenwriter Mark L. Smith co-adapted their screenplay from Michael Punke’s 2002 book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. I didn’t realize until doing a little research after seeing the film that Hugh Glass was a real-life trapper and frontiersman (how I know who Jim Bridger is, yet have never heard of this guy…is one of life’s mysteries). I also learned this is not the first film based on Glass’ exploits; that honor goes to a 1971 western called Man in the Wilderness, directed by Richard C. Sarfian (how I know and love Sarfian’s 1971 classic Vanishing Point, yet have never heard of his other 1971 film…is another of life’s mysteries). What isn’t such a mystery are the 12 Oscar nominations, which include Best Actor and Supporting Actor for DiCaprio and Hardy. DiCaprio earns his statue for the al fresco dining alone (you’ll know when you see it). Hardy is perfect playing a character who could be an ancestor for those mountain men in Deliverance. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Never, never get outta the boat.