By now, you’ve likely heard endless tales about how difficult it was to make ‘The Revenant’. Those stories are true and the danger and difficulty of the shoot bleeds onto the screen like a glossy Herzog deathtrap. However, the movie is also difficult to watch in ways both good and bad.
Sure, the story is supposed to be gruelling and punishing, but that effect hits viewers in ways that aren’t always intentional. ‘The Revenant’ is undoubtedly a beautifully constructed beast with some standout performances. It’s also an extraordinary act of indulgence by a filmmaker gone mad, whose relentless excesses must be endured alongside his triumphs.
The wild wilderness of Canada and Argentina star in this tale of survival, loosely based on a troubling chapter in the life of frontier fur trapper Hugh Glass. The story begins in a brief moment of calm (few of these make it to the screen), as an expedition of trackers stretch, dry and admire their pelts. That calm is quickly interrupted when a tribe of natives attack the intruders, slaughtering many and forcing much of their spoils to be left behind. When the dust clears, the few survivors take stock of the situation. The young captain (Domhnall Gleeson) merely wants to get as many men back to camp as possible, which proves to be a challenge when Glass (DiCaprio) is brutally mauled by a bear.
With Glass unable to walk or even speak, the captain elects to leave the man behind to heal or die under the watchful eye of three men. They are Glass’ half-Pawnee son (Forest Goodluck), an easily manipulated boy (Will Poulter), and Tom Hardy as the exact type of greedy, racist and sociopathic trapper you’d expect Tom Hardy to play. Obviously, the tough tale doesn’t get any easier. Much of it is dedicated to watching DiCaprio crawl his way across impossible terrain through incredible imagery while the other survivors bicker about morality in an unformed society.
‘The Revenant’ is a curious mix of elements and styles. On the one hand, it’s a vicious and visceral survival tale dripping in exploitation movie influences. On the other hand, it’s a ponderous work of misery porn and poetic diversions in which co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu trots out his best Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog impressions. The tones never quite mesh together. Even though ‘The Revenant’ hits many extraordinary highs, the movie never quite succeeds in being more than the sum of its parts. That’s pretty typical for an Iñárritu project; even his finest movies (‘Amores Perros’ and ‘Birdman’) are hit-and-miss. Here it proves to be particularly distracting as the film is hard enough to watch when it’s working due to the gruelling subject matter. Toss in a gruelling running time dripping with self-satisfied pretentions from its maker, and you’ve got a pretty tough 2.5 hours to wade through as a viewer.
That said, the heights that Iñárritu hits in ‘The Revenant’ are often amazing. In particular, the natural-light and long-take cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is absolutely astounding. Despite working in impossible conditions and staging elaborate sequences, Lubezki’s camera flows through scenes with the grace of the one-take-wonder ‘Birdman’, creating some remarkable images unlike anything else. It’s a visual feast easy to get lost in, and Iñárritu takes full advantage of Lubezki’s skills to stage action, survival and animal attacks (note: no bear rape) that sizzle off the screen with intensity. True, the movie gets wayward and ponderous in between those peaks, but hey! That’s how art house survivalism works, folks!
And yes, Leonardo DiCaprio does try exceedingly hard to win an Oscar, diving into frozen waters, feasting on raw meat, dragging himself through snow, climbing into a carcass for warmth, and enduring all manner of physical torment from other characters, animals, the environment, and his psychotic director. The superficial physical challenges that DiCaprio forced himself through will likely be enough to get him an Academy Award (even if Christian Bale endured far more in ‘Rescue Dawn’ and received nothing). It’s certainly impressive that the movie star did what he did; however, it’s also a purely two-dimensional performance rooted in grunting, panting, sweat and tears. There’s no real sense of a deeper character or any sort of growth.
For actual acting and not just arty movie star ‘Jackass’ stunts, you have to look to Tom Hardy. Donning another mumbling and eccentric accent, Hardy disappears into a nasty self-serving human monster and somehow presents a guilty humanity within his beady eyes. It’s a remarkable bit of acting and Hardy is the only guy who could deliver that character with such depth. Unfortunately, since he’s not the pretty kid from ‘Titanic’ dousing himself in filth and blood, Hardy won’t get the same attention. That’s just how these things go.
‘The Revenant’ is an impressive achievement and a film very much worth seeing. Yet, despite the wild ambitions of the filmmakers, it’s not the masterpiece they set out to make. At 90 gruelling minutes with profundity existing as subtext rather than a lot of ham-fisted monologue, the movie could have been such a masterpiece. In fact, you could argue that Iñárritu even got all the pieces he needed to make that masterpiece while putting his crew through hell on the mountains. Sadly, the long-take style he favored with Lubezki eliminated any chance of chopping the length down.
Of course, Iñárritu isn’t a filmmaker or writer who has the word “subtlety” in his vocabulary, so it’s unlikely that he would have cut things down even if he had the editorial option to do so. He likes his movies, big, loud and self-importantly in your face. ‘The Revenant’ delvers on all those fronts for good and ill. Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad, even if your butt might not agree as you sit through this plodding cinematic assault on the senses.