Warning: there are some spoilers here, so proceed with caution. I tried not to give away anything huge, but I do discuss the ending!
The plot of The Revenant might be as simple as it gets–after a man serving as a guide gets attacked by a bear, a few of the men he’s with and his son stay behind. And one of those men murders his son in front of him while he’s helpless to do anything, including speak, then leaves him for dead.
But I think the simplicity is what makes The Revenant work so well–in a lot of ways, it’s basically a survival story, and for as simple as it is, it’s actually really unpredictable. You don’t know how Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is going to get himself out of the various situations he gets into, or if he will at all. You don’t know where he’s going to end up, how he’s going to get there, and what he’s going to do. And that’s probably my favorite part about the film as a whole. It can be really hard to keep audiences guessing, especially ones who read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies and TV. When you’ve either read or seen it all, you’re almost never surprised, and maybe that’s why The Revenant excels in its simplicity. It also proves that “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “predictable.”
It’s also a film with a lot of emotion, and it’s very much a revenge film–and that’s probably then only predictable thing about it. Because of course a man who witnesses his son’s murder is gonna want to go after the man who did it. But that motivation isn’t necessarily obvious from the start. Initially, DiCaprio’s will to live seems to stem from, well, being human, but as we see him go along, it becomes abundantly clear he doesn’t care about survival so much as he does getting even. We see him scribbling things in rocks and in snow, and it’s not until later in the film that we see he’s writing, “Fitzgerald killed my son.” I took this as a twofold message. One, he wants to live to go back and make Fitzgerald pay. Two, if he doesn’t, he’s put what happened in writing, and if someone from his original party sees it, they’ll know.
And naturally, all this means it’s a pretty emotionally raw film, too, packed with intensity and grit. It’s graphic, but not excessively or distractingly so–while I complained before about Tarantino’s Hateful Eight feeling gratuitous, The Revenant instead feel realistic. I was cringing because I could imagine how painful it would be to, say, pack a hole in your neck full of gunpowder then ignite it to cauterize the wound.
The acting was all excellent, too, and as amazing as DiCaprio was throughout, some of the best moments were when the group realizes he’s alive and naturally is not too pleased to learn what happened, leading up to a huntdown of Fitzgerald.
The ending seems to be open to interpretation, which I also loved but know some people really hate. Personally? I think DiCaprio died.