Fresh off his multiple, and thoroughly undeserved, Oscar wins for Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu returns with his latest film, The Revenant. It is loosely (and I mean, really, really loosely) based on the book of the same name by Michael Punke. It tells the story of a frontiersman, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is going on a fur trapping expedition. After getting attacked by a bear, he is horrifically injured and is left for dead by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who also made the mistake of killing Hugh’s son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the witness to John’s attempt to kill and bury Hugh. After a while, Hugh gets the energy to move again and proceeds on a solo trek in the unforgiving American wilderness to seek vengeance.
I’ve been very clear before that I am not a fan of Iñárritu, a point that I made clear even in my review for Birdman, a film which has only become more insufferable as time goes on. And that is not necessarily me saying that he is a talentless hack, I actually think he is an excellent craftsman, just nothing more. He always comes along with well-made films that just so happen to be utterly pointless, or pontificating ideas on such a surface-level, on-the-nose way that are laughably simplistic and embarrassingly full of itself, yet presented in a way that begs the audience to believe in its profundity. Not one of Iñárritu’s films have brought his craftsmanship and his storytelling together in a thematically coherent and cohesive manner that is either challenging or meaningful. His films have only succeeded in showing off just how gosh darn good of a director Iñárritu is, what with his use of long, tracking shots and uncompromising looks at super serious/important subject matter, regardless of how appropriate his stylistic choices match his stories and themes. The Revenant…is not an exception to this.
Admittedly, I was genuinely curious about The Revenant. The previews were intense, it’s beautifully shot, and it felt like Iñárritu actually uses his visual language in a way that feels in sync to the kind of story that he is telling. For a while, I had an open mind and thought he might might actually nail this one. You all saw that shot of the horse running off the goddamn cliff, right? But I guess the Iñárritu managed to find a way to take what could have been an intense and brutal 90 minute survival/revenge film into a tedious, boring, meandering, and laughable two-hour and 36 minute film that feels like a pompous film-student’s attempt at making a “thinking-man’s” (i.e. Terrence Malick-esque) action movie that might nail the cinematic form, but completely lacks a soul…or even a brain for that matter.
Let’s get this out of the way, yes, the film is without a doubt, 100% gorgeous. Emmanuel Lubezki has outdone himself yet again with incredibly well-done cinematography that uses natural lighting in a very fresh and immersive way. It is absurd just how pretty the film is. However, the problem with it is ultimately pretty for the sake of pretty. It’s the kind of cinematography that is manufactured to appeal to the “take a frame and put it on my wall” crowd. They like how everything looks, but it’s cinematography that only works on a very surface level. Like Birdman, the camera work is rarely used with any sort of variety to achieve a specific effect for appropriate moments. There’s no reason for the film to be shot the way it was. No shots are there to express emotion or visually tell the story or provide greater contextual meaning. Nothing is expressed through the look of the film besides the general confidence in filmmaking and the meaningless, but pretty imagery, which is basically how every Iñárritu film works, so I’m not necessarily blaming Lubezki for this. There’s more to cinematography than just composition and lighting. And it’s not just Iñárritu that fails to understand this, unfortunately a lot of directors don’t fully get the concept of motivated camera movement and using the lens to tell the story.
Leonardo DiCaprio is an actor that I like a lot, I liked him even back during his Titanic days when it was the cool thing to hate him. Though he does happen to be one of those actors who has a somewhat limited range mostly due to his non-aging, pretty boy looks. So, it was a bit hard for me to really buy him as an experienced fur-trapper in the early 1800s. However, that’s not to say he doesn’t act the ever living hell out of it in the film. He screams a lot, he yells a lot, he crawls a lot, he looks at stuff like really intensely…and…that’s about it. It’s at a point where when you see him crawl early on, all you can do is picture an Oscar just off-screen that he’s going towards come hell or high water. I don’t think he’s being given the best material to begin with so I can hardly blame him for a performance that completely lacks depth. A lot the problems are rooted in the lack of progression with his character, he more or less stumbles around the wilderness constantly getting himself in trouble to a ridiculous degree. You don’t see a lot of the rage-fueled man determined to go through the worst conditions so he can avenge his son, you really just get some guy who is experiencing the worst case of Murphy’s Law. Some scenes of him trying to survive are solid enough, even though some moments almost play into unintentional comedy.
Some of the better moments, performance wise, mostly came from Tom Hardy and Will Poulter, who plays the young Jim Bridger. They bounce off each other really well with a ferocious intensity and synergy. If I’m being honest I thought Will Poulter gave the best performance in the entire film. It was the only one that felt like it was covering a wide range of emotions and layered humanity within the character. DiCaprio is either on scream mode or whispery voice-over nonsense mode, while Tom Hardy, mostly plays his role just short of being a hammy villain, complete with another ridiculous accent that seems like Hardy was doing his best impression of Bubba from Forrest Gump. Like DiCaprio, Hardy is fun to watch, but there’s not a whole lot there, despite some clumsy exposition meant to give his character a little depth, which falls completely flat. Poulter is the only performance that feels complete and well-rounded and thus the most compelling, even though he doesn’t quite get the same screen time as his bigger co-stars and the same goes to Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Andrew Henry, the guy behind the expedition.
One thing that the film does do a really good job with is getting across the feeling of the times. All the people behind the production design, the costumes, makeup, etc. have done an excellent job at bringing the time period to life in a way that is more authentic than it has ever been. There are some nice details within that do sell the idea of you watching something that is taking place during the early 1800s. The music by Bryce Dessner, Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto is also quite good in adding to the oppressive, but haunting loneliness of the wilderness. I do want to quickly mention that one of the big changes from the original story is the addition of Hugh Glass’ wife, a Native American (who as far as I can recall is not even given a name) and their son. Hugh Glass didn’t have a wife and son, but I wouldn’t mind the change had it served a purpose. Aside from a couple lines of dialogue, the film never really does anything with this change. It’s just another example of how Iñárritu will present something that has potential for depth, but will not go deeper than the surface level when telling his story. If you changed the Native American wife and son to just being Caucasian, it wouldn’t have made a difference. There are also some spiritual elements that the film seemed to be exploring, but again, it doesn’t pay off in any way; it’s treated with minimal lip-service and absolutely no forethought as to how it relates to the characters and the relationship with revenge.
During the long developmental period that this film went through, Park Chan-wook (director of Oldboy, Stoker) was set to direct with Samuel L. Jackson to star, and when that fell through John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) came in with Christian Bale attached. Frankly, I think either of these two would have produced a much better and more interesting film. And granted, that isn’t to say the version of The Revenant we have now is worthless, I think if you could take The Revenant, cut out an hour and ten minutes or so, you would have a perfectly sufficient, raw and moody survival/revenge movie, something I actually would have liked quite a bit. However, because Iñárritu is so preoccupied in wanting us to think he’s some kind of a genius and that his movies are so important, we end up getting an overlong film that doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to do or say with its extra time aside from shoving our faces in non-stop misery-porn (which, by the way, ends up turning around into unintentional comedy at multiple points including the bear scene) that insists on being more profound than it actually is. Yes, the film is very pretty, it’s very well-made, there is no denying that, but aesthetics alone cannot hold up an entire film, especially one this long. If you want to see a great film that perfectly utilizes natural lighting, watch Barry Lyndon, or if you want a brutal, but thematically rich/coherent survival story, watch The Grey. Or hell, if you want want to see a film made with little to no safety consideration for its cast and crew, watch Roar. I get the appeal of The Revenant, and I can see why people are getting into it, but for me, it’s just a tedious bore with a thin story and thin characters that provide little to no depth or insight into the potentially awesome story of Hugh Glass. Needed more scenes of DiCaprio getting raped by a bear. 40 / 100