What, precisely, is a revenant? The word calls to mind both the half-rhyme “remnant,” and the notion of revenge. As it happens, it’s an extraordinarily apt title for the new film by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (the director of last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman), which shows us Leonardo DiCaprio playing an experienced hunter and tracker whose frame, for much of the film, carries around only the tattered remains of a formerly strong body, bent on retribution. The literal meaning of “revenant” is a person returned from the dead, either as a ghost or an animated corpse, making it triply suitable for the story of the film.
DiCaprio’s trapper, named Hugh Glass, has been hired by a company of hunters to guide them through the unsettled wilderness of what later became Montana and North and South Dakota, in the winter of 1823. He is accompanied by his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and haunted by the spectre of his dead wife, a Pawnee Native American, who was killed by a white officer. The company is made up of a few dozens of men – including the leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the shifty-eyed and hard-muzzled John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), little more than a boy – but their numbers are cut brutally short when the native Arikara ambush their camp. The survivors, whose final tally is a mere ten, hurry away down the river on their shabby log boat.