Like many awards contenders, The Revenant has been sold primarily on the strength of its pedigree. The film comes to us from director Alejandro Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, both of whom won Oscars for last year’s Best Picture, Birdman. The stars include such perpetually overlooked awards favorites as Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. So far, so standard.
But then the promotions go further, with one story after another about how the actors and filmmakers practically killed themselves making this film. And honestly, I don’t care. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it when filmmakers put a ton of effort into their projects. In fact, I demand it from every movie I watch. But talent, effort, and good intentions don’t always translate into good cinema. And now that the movie’s out, absolutely nothing else matters except how much those good intentions improved what made it to the screen.
And I’m glad to say that all the talent and effort very drastically improved the movie. Because it’s pretty much the only reason why it’s anywhere close to watchable.
The plot is very loosely inspired by the real-life story of Hugh Glass, here played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Glass and his half-breed Pawnee son (Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck) are part of a paramilitary fur trapping expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (played by General Hux himself, Domhnall Gleeson). Unfortunately, because this is 1823 and our expedition is traveling through untamed wilderness in the dead of winter, they have to deal with all manner of inclement weather, rough terrain, dangerous animals, the native tribe of Arikawa brigands, and rival French fur trappers. Put simply, our intrepid huntsmen are trekking through land that does not want them there.
As if to prove that point, Glass goes and gets himself mauled by a bear. Then the bear leaves, he tries to shoot it, and he gets mauled a second time. The bear leaves, he goads it over so he can try to stab it, and then he gets mauled a third time. Idiot.
Anyway, Glass is half-dead and it’s hard enough for the rest of the crew to get march onward even without all that dead weight. Mostly because we can clearly see that they’re a bunch of immoral and greedy bastards who’ll cuss each other out and pick fights for no reason at all. And easily the worst bastard of the bunch is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), such a violent and self-centered motherfucker that he takes his first chance to try and kill Glass. Then he kills Hawk to cover his tracks. And then he leaves Glass for dead. Which turns out to be a big mistake. You know, on top of all the other mistakes Fitzgerald has made up to this point.
Glass pulls himself out of his own shallow grave. He then starts the long process of putting himself back together, crawling back to camp through all the hostile wilderness, outmaneuvering everything that wants him dead, and chasing his revenge against Fitzgerald, all at the same time. And because this is a two-and-a-half-hour movie, we’re right there with him through pretty much every agonizing step of the way.
The movie is so ponderous and slowly paced, and so filled with gorgeous lingering shots of nature, that you could almost be forgiven for thinking this was a Terrence Malik picture. The filmmakers clearly put a ton of effort into making the movie feel immersive, and the results are undeniably effective. Some of the more grisly moments are presented without any cutaways, and the grotesquery gets a much more visceral reaction precisely because we aren’t given the option to look away. Even in the way blood, water, and fog of breath hit the camera lens, it’s done in such a way as to help put us in the character’s headspace.
Of course, the trade-off is that we’re being put in the headspace of a man who is going through hell. Which means that we’re made to feel every ounce of pain, every drop of blood lost, every bone that gets broken and reset, and every gash that’s stuck back together.
(Side note: Reportedly, the real Hugh Glass let maggots eat his dead flesh to stave off gangrene. The film spares us that, at least.)
On the one hand, this makes it so very satisfying to watch Glass as he progressively grows into a stronger person who can march on his own two feet again. On the other hand, it bears remembering that Glass is out for revenge against the man who’s already killed the last bit of family he ever had. As Glass himself points out, he’s completely embraced the possibility that this revenge kick is a suicide mission because he’s already barely alive and he’s got nothing left to live for. There is absolutely no possibility for a happy ending here, which means that the film (in terms of our emotional investment and involvement as a willing audience) is dragging us to our own ruination right along with Glass. That’s not a whole lot of motivation to spend 156 precious minutes sitting through this movie.
So what else does this movie have to offer? Well, the film depicts Native Americans and White Folk as two sides of same coin, mostly in how nearly every single character of both races is a greedy, bloodthirsty, self-interested, immoral savage. This in addition to other themes of revenge, redemption, persistence in the face of adversity, the conflict of mankind vs. nature, and other such themes that have already been done in greater depth by umpteen other films.
Which leaves us with the presentation. God damn, that presentation. The visuals are undeniably gorgeous from start to finish, and it’s astonishing to think that the whole film was shot using only ambient light. Major kudos are also due to DiCaprio, who brings such a fantastic performance that it’s so much easier to feel his character’s suffering. As for Hardy, the guy plays such an unrepentant douchebag that he’s a lot of fun to hate. Moreover, because DiCaprio and Hardy both play their characters as solid badasses, it leads to a lot more tension when we finally watch the two of them fight and see who gets the upper hand.
Like most Oscar-bait films, The Revenant works much better as a demonstration of what the filmmakers can do, rather than as a decent story. There’s absolutely no denying that everyone behind the scenes put in a ton of effort to make the most immersive production they could, with jaw-dropping photography and phenomenal performances. Unfortunately, when the story is this misanthropic and poorly paced, and it ultimately doesn’t end up saying much of anything new or delivering any plot twists we couldn’t see coming from a mile away, I don’t understand why anyone would spend the time or the ticket price getting immersed in this story to begin with.