Film Review: 'The Revenant'
If it was last year's Best Picture winner Birdman that showcased director Alejandro González Iñárritu's incredible penchant for memorable sequences and spellbinding cinematography, then it's The Revenant where his talents show their full, grisly potential. Set in the snow-blanketed American frontier, this blend of survival and revenge stories is a visually poetic cataloging of the extreme lengths one will go to fight on and live, even after being gashed and tossed around to within an inch of one's life. Yet The Revenant is not only tragic for the fate that befalls its hero - despite its powerful, aesthetically superior filmmaking, The Revenant sorely lacks in a truly compelling tale that can agonizingly eat away at the heart.
Said hero is American frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who commandeers a fur-trapping expedition along with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) - much to the ire of his mates, namely the bull-headed and ruthless John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). After an ambush by Arikara natives that sees thirty-three of their men brutally murdered, Glass and company begin the trek home. Yet even more tragedy befalls Glass when, during a scouting expedition, he is viciously mauled by a mother bear protecting her cubs - easily The Revenant's most vicious jewel-in-the-crown sequence. Glass's back is ripped to shreds, his arm dislocated, his ankle broken, and his throat slashed to the point of turning his voice into lethargic, indecipherable wheezes.
Fellow trapper Bridger (Will Poulter) advocates helping return Glass to camp, but Fitzgerald, cold and uncompromising in his mission to return home in one piece, murders Hawk before the helpless stare of Glass, and then buries Glass alive, leaving him for dead. Witnessing Hawk perish lights the fire within Glass, granting him the willpower and courage to rise from the dead, claw his way back to society, and exact revenge on Fitzgerald.
There is no other performance this year equal to DiCaprio's brutally visceral display of merciless endeavor - a commanding force on screen and a harrowing window into the psychology of a man who staunchly refuses to perish, even to the point of self-cauterizing neck wounds with hot embers. Otherwise, any water the man drinks simply leaks right out of the holes in his neck. He resorts to anything - chomping down on the organs of a freshly killed buffalo or slicing open a horse to sleep inside its body for a night - and all of this is captured in the gorgeous cinematography of Emmanuel Lubenski (Gravity), whose long takes and tracking shots are like witnessing great art. Lastly, editing and sound design engross the audience in the biting winter and forest landscapes. When it comes to crafting an absolutely enveloping cinematic universe, Iñárritu has no equal.
Where The Revenant unfortunately falls short, however (and this is a big one) is in making its hero likable, sympathetic, and ultimately someone to root for - without that, the film feels incredibly underwhelming, and its oblong, nearly three-hour running time doesn't help its cause.
What I mean is that in spite of DiCaprio's completely visceral performance - no doubt he has dug deep into the recesses of his soul to pull this one forth - the screenplay doesn't make Glass a likable or even barely relatable hero. He is an enraged father surviving long enough to exact his revenge - but not relatable enough to where we can share his goal. The film attempts to drive that point home with occasional sequences of Glass having ghastly visions of his deceased Pawnee wife (Grace Dove) encouraging him to fight on. "If you look at the branches in the wind," she whispers, "you swear the tree will fall. But look at the trunk, and see that it is strong." With greenscreened visions of her floating around and above Glass, the scenes don't carry emotional weight and feel more like a Native American-style Birdman parody.
Even with all of its other merits, namely Hardy's convincing turn as the selfishly cruel Fitzgerald, The Revenant is just like any other wild survival tale, except with a little revenge mixed in. We may shiver at the icy landscape Glass treks; we may cower in fear of the Indian headhunters that pursue him; and we may wince whenever he picks at the black, rotting flesh still left on his body. Yet we can't say that we feel for him - especially as the films crawls along at an excruciatingly slow pace.
Make no mistake that what Iñárritu has in The Revenant is a damn fine film, which refuses to apologize for being grotesquely gorgeous and violently poetic. His orchestration of direction, cinematography, production design and sound editing absolutely warrants handing Iñárritu another directing Oscar - and maybe even the coveted acting Oscar for Leo. Yet like cinematographer Lubenski's previous foray in Gravity, The Revenant, with its cookie-cutter fight-to-survive tale sporting no emotional weight nor any refreshing variation, fails to ensnare the empathy of its audience; neither is it an ultimately gratifying revenge story. Much like the raw animal flesh on which Glass feasts, the narrative and psychological center of The Revenant is undone, and we are left with its strikingly beautiful outer shell.
Written by Mark L. Smith & Alejandro González Iñárritu (screenplay) and Michael Punke (novel).
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.