Much has been said about what the cast and crew of The Revenant had to endure while shooting the film: working in freezing temperature outside the cozy confines of a typical studio. Only having about an hour and a half each day to shoot scenes in natural light. Literally going around the world just to find some snow. Leonardo DiCaprio doing already legendary things in a search of his first Oscar statue as desperate as the journey his character takes.
Unfortunately, once you strip down The Revenant, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Academy Award-winning Birdman, to its individual parts, those behind-the-scenes stories are more fascinating than the final product itself.
The Revenant tells the true story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and explorer, who is left for dead by his supposed partners following a brutal bear attack. In a desperate attempt to survive and get his revenge, he traverses miles and miles of untamed 1800s American frontier, enduring countless obstacles just to be able to live another day.
It’s a dramatic premise, to be sure, albeit one that is so straightforward and predictable that Iñárritu has to compensate somehow, and he elects to do it with visuals. Once again collaborating with the talents of Emmanuel Lubezki – who at this stage of his career is incapable of disappointing – Iñárritu makes The Revenant as gorgeous and harrowing as he sets out to make it, from the sweeping, desolate vistas to the ingenious camera work and multitude of tracking shots that make for a couple of the most brutally beautiful and engrossing sequences you’ll ever see in a movie theater.
But once you get past the visual artistry – which could even be called a gimmick – The Revenant is as hollow as the dead horse that Glass at one point takes shelter in.
In a story like The Revenant, with so many aware of what Iñárritu’s ability to immerse the audience with the camera, he is forced to take a gamble by relying heavily on emotion to get the audience through a two and a half hour running time to achieve the only real satisfaction in the film’s closing minutes and moments.
Perhaps that is what Iñárritu intended: for the audience to be forced through something we’re not sure we want to experience, putting ourselves in Glass’
shoes beaverskin boots.
It doesn’t really work though. There comes a point when the audience comes to expect the gorgeous visuals, and you should take the time to admire what is truly a masterful job of directing given Iñárritu’s commitment to using only natural light, but that’s where his triumph in The Revenant doesn’t just stop short, but almost stumbles off a snow-lined cliff.
If this is the movie that gets our precious DiCaprio (Inception, The Wolf of Wall Street) his first Oscar statue, it’s a shame. Grunting, heavily breathing, and crawling his way through a performance in which he does essentially what he has to – and nothing quite more – it isn’t until literally the film’s final moments that the audience feels a bit moved by his journey.
While many will point to the fact that his role is largely sans dialogue, he simply doesn’t do enough to justify it. He masters the art of the thousand-yard-stare, sure, but most times it feels like he’s searching for something more he could be doing to make the audience more emotionally invested. Because of that, it is just as difficult to anoint The Revenant DiCaprio’s best performance when he was so much more accessible, and simply entertaining, in films like Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He captured the spirit of those individual films through his acting, something he fails to do in The Revenant.
Conversely, there is so much more reason to invest in the more internal struggle of John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) in a supremely uncompromising role as the explorer who betrays Glass’ final moments in more ways than one. Even when his accent is too gruff to understand, he gives us a much more inviting and captivating performance of a frontiersman in his time and place through wide eyes and an expression of someone who legitimately believes in the justification of his actions. Hardy’s performance is the real one to marvel at here.
Iñárritu is owed credit for not relying solely on the technicalities of The Revenant, but to make them count for something more. He attempts to make Glass’ struggle Terrence Malick-esque, through fleeting imagery that some may find confusing and ridiculous, and others still taking the effort to observe them as clues into Glass’ journey and persona. It’s a technique that doesn’t work for everyone, through, and at face value is an attempt that misses that mark at infusing the picture with much-needed levity.
Nature is a force to be reckoned with, though, that much is certain. Iñárritu excels as portraying the dangers of the unexplored frontier, mostly through exquisite cinematography. The allegoric, repeated use of trees are something to pay attention to for cinephiles who take pleasure in looking into those certain cinematic subtleties. The music also does its job, haunting and daunting as Glass’ journey is meant to be portrayed.
Beyond that though, an unremarkable script, overhyped performances and a story that fails to truly grab hold the way the visuals do results in a forgettable picture, one that respects its setting but not its foundation.
In a Nutshell
If The Revenant’s story and character exploration were as solid as its visuals, Iñárritu could have a true masterpiece in his hands for the second consecutive year. Instead, he settles for a technical marvel that vastly overshadows a story that is as shallow as the frontier it portrays is threatening.
7 / 10
The Revenant is rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu