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The Revenant is quite a grueling experience (and that’s a compliment).

In the Heart of the Land

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio)

The Revenant has a lot in common with In the Heart of the Sea, another recent release, albeit one that quickly ran aground amid the Star Wars tsunami. Both are well-crafted survival tales. Both are based on true stories and have their roots in 1820s American history. And both serve as tales of male shaming, at least shaming of the modern urban male. Pampered by things like smart phones (which have morphed into the equivalent of the good ol’ Swiss army knife), geo-location, Google Maps and MINI Coopers with butt-warmers, it’s fairly safe to say most men these days wouldn’t last all that long in the 1820s - whether at altitude in the Rocky Mountains or on the high seas.

But that’s also part of the visceral fun of watching both The Revenant and In the Heart of the Sea. They are tales of survival well worth relishing.

Dangers such as being mauled by a bear certainly have a way of decreasing life expectancy and in The Revenant, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception) endures the brutal experience of not only a vicious grizzly bear attack, but also being buried alive and left for dead by a shady colleague, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road).

Rising from the grave (and thereby providing the movie’s title), Hugh exhibits an awesome will to survive – driven by the desire to exact revenge for the murder of his son at the hands of that same malevolent fur trader.

Hateful Myth

Even further entwining The Revenant with In the Heart of the Sea, the very real Hugh Glass was, reportedly, at one point a sea-faring pirate before he made his way into the wild frontier of the American West. There, the economy at hand was driven by the fur trade instead of whale oil. The procurement and processing of that precious cargo, though, was every bit as dangerous as whale hunting.

Part of the fascination of this story is its roots in American mythology. Concrete documentation of Glass is hard to come by, but Michael Punke mined all the material he could find while crafting his book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, which serves as the movie’s source material and springboard.

There is the kernel of a story about a man left for dead who makes his way back to civilization. News reports drifted out across the country. A legend was born. And embellishments ensued, such as Hugh having a Pawnee wife and a son.

That family element turns into a hook that takes viewers into a fresh look at Native Americans and a way of life that has been trampled by the constant sweep of history. Even so, it’s not fair to call The Revenant an apologist’s tale. Sure, there’s the brutality of fur traders invading territory of Arikara and Sioux tribes, but there’s also an acknowledgment of the brutality inflicted between tribes.


The Revenant is a technically stunning accomplishment buoyed by another strong, physically demanding performance from DiCaprio (although his Oscar potential is debatable) as well as yet another great turn by Hardy, who continues to serve as one of the great chameleons of onscreen character creation.

Director Alejandro Inarritu, who took home the Oscar for his wildly creative Birdman, trades in the creature comforts of Broadway for the shocking, harsh conditions of filming outdoors (in Argentina and Canada).

Particularly in the movie’s opening action sequences involving the ambush of a group of fur traders, there’s a constant camera movement swirling around the carefully staged chaos. From there, the story goes into some wild, dark territory. Hugh goes through the wringer: mauled, left for dead, plunging over a waterfall, leaping off a cliff (on horseback), warming up in the belly of a horse. It’s all high adventure, the kind where the cozy air conditioning of modern movie theatres collides with the frigid imagery on screen.

Bring a jacket.