Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Running Time: 2 hours 36 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The American West during the 18th and 19th-century was tough business. Just ask Hugh Glass, the real-life frontiersman who was viciously mauled by a bear and then journeyed some 200 miles to safety in order to exact revenge on the men who left him for dead. As played by a scraggly, grunting Leonardo DiCaprio with all manner of physical, emotional, and mental anguish laid out onscreen, this harrowing true story seems ripe for writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s particular brand of art-house misery-porn. Of course, the actual story involving Glass had nothing to do with revenge or the mystical white man reaching for salvation surrounded by Native American iconography, but was instead a highly improbable tale of herculean survival. That Iñárritu has made a grueling endurance test makes sense given the particulars of the story, but what he's left out is any sense of grace, nuance, or psychological complexity that could have made his film emotionally affecting. For better or worse (mostly worse), The Revenant is one long, uber-masculine trip into the recesses of a filmmaker's undaunted ego. The American West may have been tough business, but boy, does it look gorgeous in widescreen.
To say The Revenant is visually breathtaking is an understatement, and the hellish beauty captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Iñárritu's Birdman), should not be undersold. However, there's a real disconnect between a director's intent and his stylistic choices, and it's here where Iñárritu confuses the two. If Birdman was his semi-comic take on artistic integrity, proposing, among other things, that audiences have become lobotomized consumers of brain-dead Hollywood blockbusters, then The Revenant is his audacious attempt at tackling the kind of risk-taking insanity which has consumed auteurs like Herzog and Coppola. Taking his actors deep into far away locales, shooting only in available sunlight, braving the elements of nature; these are all things to which Iñárritu is drawn to as a kind of madness litmus test. The problem here is that for all his attempts at capturing a terrifyingly primal time in our history, his picture is much too self-admiring in it's formal choices to be truly persuasive. With something like Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre the Wrath of God, Herzog captured the absurd strangeness of his milieu; there was legitimate danger, blood, sweat, and certified madness in the work. In terms of Apocalypse Now, to use another example, part of the magic of that film was the accidental nature of the production falling apart and Coppola's own deranged hubris gradually coming unglued. That film had helicopter crashes, strung out Dennis Hopper, and Marlon Brando's notorious script rewrites. The Revenant has meticulously planned tracking shots, mumbly Tom Hardy, wistful images of Native American tree hugging, and a CGI bear.
Now of course, no one is asking Iñárritu to risk life and limb for his art, but his high-wire aspirations and gesturing toward the work of other filmmakers really does invite such comparisons. In terms of narrative, however, this really is an old-fashioned revenge tale disguised as a survival story with heavy-handed symbolism thrown in for good measure. The film opens with the kind of bravura action sequence that will likely have cinephiles swooning as a Pawnee rescue party attacks a group of American fur trappers, of which Glass is the leader. The sequence, which is impressive in terms of formal technique and camera movement, is never fully gripping since we are always aware of the artistry on display. In some senses, it's reminiscent of the extended moments in Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line where the camera swoops through a Japanese camp as American soldiers go on a murderous rampage. But there, Malick infused everything with a melancholic sense of poetry and sadness. Here, Iñárritu simply sees the carnage as a means for showboating.
Following Glass's infamous meeting with the bear (the one instance where the directorial style actually gives us something close to visceral power), he's left to die by fellow trappers John Fitzgerald (Hardy, cartoonishly entertaining), and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). What follows is a series of ever-escalating horrors in which Glass valiantly pushes onward through the harsh elements, while every once in a while flashing back to the visage of his deceased native wife (what is it with DiCaprio and dead wives?), while single-mindedly determined to exact revenge. Though movies in this genre have gotten by with even less character psychology, Glass remains little more than a bodily receptor for pain and misery. DiCaprio's wholly committed physical performance notwithstanding, there's really only one mode of psychological insight to be gleamed here--survival at all costs--which would have been fine if the film had cut a lean 90-minutes, but this thing slogs on for almost two-and-a-half hours. Even more galling is Iñárritu's insistence on striving for meaning, with faux-Malick montages of enigmatic structures, levitating women, and trees stretching toward the skies like skyscrapers. He even recycles an image used in Birdman; that of a shooting star or comet crashing down from the heavens in a glorious widescreen composition.
If The Revenant basically boils down to DiCaprio's crawling, wheezing hero surviving endless calamity in order to have a hyper-macho battle with Fitzgerald (who, by the way, does something unforgivably heinous before leaving Glass to die), then Iñárritu doubles down on his simplistic moral tale with such punishing glee that we are apt to shrug off his entire endeavor as little more than a dark comedy. In fact, had he reverse-engineered his film into a kind of stylized cartoon version of "when I was a young lad back in those frontier days…", complete with gangrene-infested flesh, broken limbs, dead horses, and wispy voiceover from spiritual avatars, then this may really have been something. But Iñárritu, despite the supposed "comedic" tone of Birdman, is not one for chuckles, and though Hardy seems to in the spirit with yet another loopy accent, the rest involved seem hopelessly trapped in the idea that they are making audacious art and suffering mightily for it. Mostly, though, it's simply the audience that suffers.