Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest, The Revenant, is a bit of an endurance test


3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Okay, so I have a problem with The Revenant.

It’s not the same issue I had with Argo back in 2012 (a decent retro thriller, not a Best Picture) or even with The Theory of Everything or American Sniper last year (good performances, not much else — also by no means indispensable). The matter with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest is, for me, is its lack of matter.

Set amid the snowy Great Plains circa 1823, the film initially follows a party of fur trappers fleeing across the mountains in the wake of a bloody and chaotic massacre by Arikara warriors. When their guide, the guarded Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is mauled by a grizzly, Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) assigns two men – the self-interested John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and a then greenhorn Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) – to stay and tend to him until he passes. 

Fitzgerald, however, is not about to risk his life for a dying man and decides to put Glass out of his misery. When Glass’ half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), tries to intervene, Fitzgerald kills him as Glass looks on, horrified and helpless. Half-buried and left for dead, Glass crawls out of his own grave and embarks on a trek across hostile, inhospitable territory to claim Fitzgerald’s life. 

The majority of critics seem to have been swept away by Iñárritu’s tale of vengeance and survival – it currently holds an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been nominated for twelve Oscars – but I found myself strangely unmoved.  

The Revenant’s shoot is already well on its way to becoming legend: shooting in sub-zero temperatures in twelve different locations, three different countries, with all natural light is certainly impressive, but it doesn’t in itself make for a better film. Van Gogh’s contribution to Post-Impressionism was not improved one iota by his having cut his own ear off.

DiCaprio doesn’t act so much as endure; endure greasy furs, freezing waters, and a diet that Bear Grylls would balk at (still-steaming bison liver or frozen bone marrow, anyone?). If DiCaprio walks away with the Oscar this year, as seems to be the likely outcome, it will be an award won with graft – blood and spit, teeth gritted, eyes rolling – as opposed to craft.  If the best acting is reacting, what else can you do in the face of ordeals such as these? The film’s final shot of him, streamy-eyed and desperate, is the closest I’ve seen to an outright onscreen plea for acknowledgement.

Hardy, meanwhile, is in full-on gruff and stare-y mode as the semi-scalped Fitzgerald, but it’s neither he nor the omnipresent Gleeson’s best film this year. This isn’t even eithers’ best Best Picture candidate.

Based on a true story (though each of the words in that phrase are open to differing degrees of interpretation), Glass’ struggle against the forces of nature lends itself to spectacle — flaming arrows soaring overhead, a horse taking a tumble off a cliff —  but The Revenant isn’t content to leave it there. With its repeated cutaways to bare pines and pale skies, it feels like the film is attempting to offer some obscure commentary about nature’s indifference to man, but the impassivity of wood and stone is less than entirely compelling. 

There’s an assumption of profundity – that some grand statement is being made about mankind’s place in the universe – but The Revenant is too caught up in its survivalist trappings (pun semi-intended) to commit to making a definite statement.

The film avoids the cliche of treating the natives as noble savages — this isn’t Little Big Man — and a frenetic sequence where the camp is beset by armed braves, Iñárritu’s camera darting from one muddy conflict to the next, has a purity of vision. Repeated visions of Glass’ dead wife and a single shot of a comet blazing to earth suggest some religious subtext, and indeed Glass himself is born/reborn multiple times; from the grave, from a makeshift sweat lodge, from the literal belly of a beast, but the film lacks the thematic framework to support this reading. 

Perhaps the natives represent a brutal sort of honor, Fitz stands for base pragmatism, and Glass must walk a path between the two — what he wants and what is right —  but again that could just be my projecting.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography has a chilly radiance and majesty, making the most of the film’s natural palette of whites, browns, and greens, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto’s ominous ambient score rising above the biting wind, and Iñárritu’s direction is superlatively competent, but The Revenant is not a film characterized by its artistry. Also, lacking, the opportunities for humour afforded to Birdman, it can’t help but come across as incredibly self-serious.

What do we learn from The Revenant then? We learn that leaving your weapon lodged in your opponent’s calf leaves you open to getting it back blade first and that films universally described as “visceral” and “immersive” often have little else to say.

The Revenant is all sinew and no heart; a period cod-Malick Death Wish with illusions of grandeur. Let’s just hope the Academy come to their collective senses and see fit to award Spotlight; otherwise the next mission of vengeance might not be cinematic but it may well be cinema-related (which is to say I intend to bitch about it online).

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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