I find films succeed or fail on three factors: 1) story and characters 2) filmmaking 3) acting. The Revenant has two and three down, but it’s the film’s failure with one that makes me think the film will be forgotten soon after (or perhaps before?) Oscar night in February.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s film is about as opposite a Western can be in relation to the other cheerful foray into the bloody frontier, fellow auteur Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Whereas the latter is a wordy detour in the minds and motives of bad guys, Revenant is focused on one man’s struggle against nature and, more broadly, all man’s relationship with it. What both share is a mastery-level of filmmaking, absolutely spectacular cinematography, and a predisposition toward the worst aspects of their respective auteur directors.
“Inspired by a true story” as the poster says and adapted by Innaritu and Mark L. Smith from the historical novel by Michael Punke, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a local tracked leading a bunch of fur-trappers in the Canadian wilderness. He knows the land and has a racially-mixed son from a relationship with a native. After his expedition is ambushed and slaughtered, the survivors flee back to civilization until Glass is mauled by a bear while hunting. The captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) orders John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) to stay behind with Glass until they can return to save him.
Which would be fine if Fitzgerald weren’t a selfish, half-scalped loon and Bridger an impressionable youth. In short order, Fitzgerald murders Glass’s son and abandons him half-buried in a ditch. What follows is as brutal a survival tale as has been told as Glass literally and figuratively rises from the grave to get revenge on Fitzgerald.
Shot over nine grueling months, from Canada to South America and using only natural light, its already-infamous Apocalypse Now-style production was as much an endurance test as the film itself. DiCaprio ate raw bison liver and Hardy choked out the director. The proof is in the pudding, as it were, and the film is gorgeous, with Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capturing their signature long shots (like the opening battle between the trappers and the natives) that take the breath away. Sadly, all the dedication to and belief in their art is undercut by poor narrative choices.
So rarely do are the second and third fundamentals of film I outlined undercut by the first. A simple (and, once again, true) story became muddled when adapted. I haven’t read Punke’s novel but from what I understand it was far more accurate to Glass’ tale, whose actual vengeance took years to accomplish. With time truncated, accent points were added to the drama and the narrative became more elaborate and heavy-handed, whether it’s the invention of the character of Glass’s son or the use of Native Americans to make points about man’s history with, and relationship to, nature.
The film shares many similarities with Innaritu’s friend and fellow Hispanic director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (a visually stunning survival tale) as well as his own previous film, last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman (pretentious Oscar-bait). But, for Innaritu, it seems telling the honest-to-God tale of Glass’s survival wasn’t enough. Who would survive simply to survive, the condescending artist who wrote Birdman asked? He has to have a dead son. Subtle parallels between spirituality and religiosity of nature isn’t enough. Glass has to walk into an overgrown and ruined church and hug a vision of his dead son.
Few things can be gleaned from what is on screen, so clear are Innaritu’s narrative intentions here. That make the film, while beautiful, ultimately forgettable and hollow. I know, for example, quite clearly where the film stands on men, nature, and the value of revenge. If I can’t infer or ponder myself the meaning of the trauma Glass has undergone, I am removed, on the outside emotionally of the story. He failed, as a writer, to match nuance of story and character with the nuance of his filmmaking.
DiCaprio is phenomenal as always, willing to do anything in his eternal quest for an Oscar, whether it’s eating raw bison or cuddling up inside a dead horse. Already the sheer dedication to the role he displays here have people saying “it’s his time.” But, with DiCaprio’s best interests at heart, I say: don’t give it to him. Next thing we know, he’ll quit acting and focus full-time on banging models, climate change and other bullshit endeavors.
Hardy, who began the year as the titular hero in Mad Max: Fury Road, plays a great villain as the unstable Fitzgerald, finding nuance in selfishness and excuses for his immorality. Poulter is the poor soul caught up in his destructive orbit and plays the guilt well. Gleeson – also having a stellar year with roles in Ex Machina, Brooklyn and Star Wars: The Force Awakens – does a fine job as the well-meaning but ignorant captain.
I hesitate to call the film a failure because of the sheer level of commitment and skill. But both Birdman and The Revenant’s astonishing filmmaking prowess don’t mean a thing if I don’t want to revisit the film or its characters. While there is a lot to chew on here for cinephiles, I don’t see repeat value in storytelling so heavy-handed it amounts to a lecture on the writer/director’s part.