By Eleanor Ringel Cater
There’s a fairly famous stage direction in Shakespeare’s, “The Winter’s Tale” — the oddly matter-of-fact instruction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
I thought about that as I watched a momma bear fold, spindle and mutilate Leonardo DiCaprio in the rough-and-ready frontier adventure, “The Revenant.”
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who won an Oscar last year for “Birdman,” is every bit as taken with the great outdoors, circa 1823, as he was with the arcane backstage detritus in a Broadway theatre. But instead of man vs. ego, this is man vs. the elements, with DiCaprio’s deadly (almost) close encounter with that bear just one of many mishaps that befall him over the movie’s 156 minutes.
DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, who, when it comes to ursine varmints, may have missed out on the early-childhood training Davey Crockett got (as in, “killed him a b’ar when he was only 3”). Still, Glass knows his way around the wilderness, having spent a spell with the Arikara tribe and taken a Native American wife.
When we meet Glass, he and his son have joined up with a band of hunters and trappers who don’t mind raping the land and killing a few “Injuns” in order to accumulate a pile of pelts they can take back to civilization and sell at a good price.
Glass — who actually existed — is their scout.
However, said “Injuns” don’t take kindly to the white man’s invasion and they fight back. The picture’s stunning first 20 minutes or so are all about a heart-stopping sudden ambush which forces the whites to run for their lives (Luckily there’s a river and a makeshift boat nearby).
The mauling Glass sustains means he must be left behind. The group’s semi-compassionate commander (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son) assigns two men to stay with him (Tom Hardy is one of them, so uh-oh). It’s assumed they will bury him once he succumbs to his wounds. But some people are more compassionate than others and Glass ends up on his own. That’s when DiCaprio gets to do some real acting — like eating raw fish and uncooked buffalo.
Maybe that’s what got on my nerves during “The Revenant”: A highly-paid Hollywood actor showing us he can endure physical abuse. That he can, “take it.” Well, sure he can. With a cast and crew just few feet away. That’s not meant to diminish DiCaprio’s effort, but is grimacing as you pretend to spend the night in an animal carcass really acting? (Okay, so apparently DiCaprio did just that as … Preparation? … Method Acting? … Good copy for Facebook?)
“The Revenant’s” primitive beauty is overwhelming (a tip of the hat to celebrated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki). However, the lack of any human connection – to Glass or anyone else – keeps us from being drawn into the story as we should be. Michael Mann did a much better job in “The Last of the Mohicans,” which, intentionally or not, is echoed in “The Revenant” when Glass tells his son, “As long as you can grab a breath, you keep breathing. Stay alive.” (“Stay alive” was what Daniel Day-Lewis told Madeleine Stowe before leaving her to the un-tender mercies of Wes Studi.)
That said, “The Revenant” owes less to “Mohicans” than it does to a cluster of films from the early ‘70s. Films like “Jeremiah Johnson” and “A Man Called Horse,” in which matinee idols (Robert Redford and Richard Harris) went native, tracking through snowdrifts, eating gross stuff and sometimes being tested by the people already living where they were going. The sight of Harris hanging from hooks embedded in his chest still makes me slightly nauseous.
But if either of those pictures appealed – or appeal – to you, get in line for, “The Revenant.” If not, well, “The Revenant” is certainly something to admire. But you leave wondering, “Why did I sit through that?” You may feel the same after watching Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” But at least that movie is over-the-top entertaining. And nobody has to spend the night inside a dead horse.