Nearly two centuries ago, before paper and scissors were added to the palette of conflict resolution tools, rocks were the preferred method of dealing with disputes.
Writer and activist Harriet Bishop, who started the first public school in the territory and for whom one of our elementary schools is named, documented frontier savagery. “The world has no record of such inhuman acts!” she wrote before creating one such record in her 1864 book, “Dakota War Whoop,” describing one raid that left an early settler decapitated, one child skinned alive and another child nailed to a tree.
History is unsettling and sometimes requires a strong stomach. So it is understandable why those uncomfortable with it might prefer a bowdlerized version. Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñárritu (“Birdman”) is not one of them. Had he pulled punches in “The Revenant,” the true tale of frontiersman Hugh Glass who “survived death,” this story might not be remarkable and Leonardo DiCaprio would not be on the way to a long-deserved Academy Award of his own (see sidebar).
Leo is scout Glass who, after fur-trappers are brutally ambushed by Pawnees, must lead them back to their fort safety. But while exploring the trail a few miles ahead of the group, he’s viciously attacked by a grizzly — ripped at and tossed like a rag doll in one of the most chilling scenes of cinematic violence.
Nearly impossible to carry, he’s left behind with three attendees, one being his son, to see to his comfort until he succumbs to his wounds. Impatient (or pragmatic) trapper John Fitzgerald (the under-appreciated Tom Hardy) tries to hasten the inevitable, murdering Glass’ son in the process, then leaves the incapacitated Glass for dead in a shallow grave.
DiCaprio, one of the industry’s most committed actors, crawls out of the grave (the word ‘revenant’ means one who comes back from the dead) and treks some 200 miles across the cold and rugged Dakota territory to exact revenge.
Lots of “eewww” moments. For instance, before he self-cauterizes it, Glass takes a drink and water gushes from his throat wound. It all contributes to the aloneness he experiences in the vast wilderness and the necessary self-reliance men of the time no doubt summoned to survive. If Iñárritu’s storytelling is magic, two-time Oscar cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity,” “Birdman”) works the mirrors for him.
Ugly, poetic, awe-inspiring, and most important, authentic, all at once.