The Revenant is two-thirds of a great movie. The problem with that other third can be summed up by the two alternate titles I came up with while watching the film: Suffering: The Movie and Everything Is Terrible. That’s more sarcastic than The Revenant deserves, really, but after watching Leonardo DiCaprio in agonizing pain for over two hours, I mentally checked out of the movie. That a man could survive such a harrowing set of circumstances is extraordinary, but the way director Alejandro G. Iñárritu focuses so intently on the pain is relentless, and it becomes narratively uninteresting. It’s a sizable flaw in a movie that is also visually breathtaking, technically intricate, superbly acted and, at times, spiritually transcendent.
Set in 1823, The Revenant, loosely based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, tells the story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and expert frontiersman. Glass is serving as a guide for an expedition of trappers in the untamed wilderness of the Dakotas. The hunters are attacked by a group of Arikara Native Americans, and panic ensues. In the scramble to find safety, Glass accidentally disturbs a mother grizzly bear and her cubs. The bear mauls Glass, and the expedition leader, Captain Andrew Henry, asks for volunteers to stay with Glass until he dies, so he can be properly buried. A member of the crew, John Fitzgerald – who antagonized Glass earlier in the trip because of Glass’ half Native American son, Hawk – offers to look after the badly wounded man after Henry says he’ll pay whoever stays. Fitzgerald is anxious to get to his pay, so he leaves Glass for dead after just a day. The rest of the film details Glass’ attempts at getting back to civilization and settling the score with Fitzgerald. Screenwriters Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith invented Hawk, the son, for the movie. It’s a way of upping the stakes even more, because Fitzgerald kills Hawk, so he can catch up with the hunting party.
This creative decision allows the filmmakers to explore, on an individual level, the bloody history of genocide that American settlers perpetrated on indigenous peoples. Fitzgerald tells his tale of being partially scalped by Native Americans, and his view of them as savages justifies in his own mind his hatred and murderous actions towards all of them. As Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy is greed and hate personified. In this way, the movie works as an allegory, and Fitzgerald stands in for the sick ideology of manifest destiny, and the subjugation of a land and its people through violence. Once that ideology is put into practice, it naturally cheapens all human life. Fitzgerald’s willingness to leave even another white man for dead is a powerful example of that.
These themes are on the periphery of The Revenant, though, because the main showcase is DiCaprio’s performance as Glass. It’s a fine, gritty, and tortured performance, but it’s hard not to recognize it for the Oscar bait that it is. Throughout the movie DiCaprio’s character is mauled by a bear, skewered with an arrow, nearly hung, shot, starved, and frozen. At the time of this writing, DiCaprio has won the SAG and Golden Globe awards for best actor, and has snagged an Oscar nomination, too. It’s a part tailor-made for awards season, and that would be fine if the movie offered more than just his misery for the entire middle third of the movie.
It would, however, be hard to overstate The Revenant’s beauty and complexity on a technical level. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has won two consecutive Oscars in that category, with strong odds of making it a third this year. Lubezki captures the stark beauty of the harsh, pitiless wilderness of an imagined untamed North America. He conveys its awesome grandeur while simultaneously capturing its deadly danger. As Glass goes through his ordeal, I was forced to put into perspective how landscapes so spectacular could also harbor forces that are so hostile to our existence.
In last year’s imaginative Birdman, Iñárritu employed kinetic camerawork and digital trickery to convey the tension of mounting a Broadway play. Here, he uses those same techniques to make the action sequences and bear attack in The Revenant nerve-shattering experiences. The minutes long bear sequence is stunning. Not one digital seam shows as DiCaprio writhes under the razor-sharp claws of the terrifying grizzly. Just as mesmerizing is the full 360-degree pan Iñárritu’s camera makes during the skirmish between the hunting party and the Native Americans. As arrows sail through the air, the sickeningly realistic bloody mise-en-scéne swirls around and around.
The deconstructionist neo-Western also explores why the Native Americans, specifically the Arikara tribe, would attack at all. It would be hard to make a Western now in the mold of the ones made at the peak of the genre’s popularity, sixty years ago, without a major backlash. Mostly gone are the days when Native Americans are portrayed as faceless savages, heartlessly killing the virtuous cowboy heroes. In a compelling subplot, we learn that the Arikara chief’s daughter, Powaqa, was kidnapped by white settlers, and the Arikara are on a mission to find her. In an unflinchingly brutal sequence, we learn of her fate at the hands of French pioneers, and it’s clear The Revenant is unafraid to lay bare the worst atrocities of which white patriarchy is capable. For a powerful reaction to this scene from a Native American woman, read this.
During his trek for vengeance, Glass meets Hikuc, a friendly Pawnee man whose family was also murdered. Hikuc tells Glass that “revenge is in the hands of God.” It’s a mystery for the rest of the film whether Glass will heed that advice, and the final half hour generates some real suspense as we find out if he does. Had the middle hour of the movie been as concerned with that moral quandary, rather than wallowing in the suffering of the protagonist, The Revenant would have been greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, it’s an example of bravura filmmaking just shy of greatness. The Revenant is full of pain and suffering that in the end signifies little.
Why it got 3 stars:
- I feel like I'm going to regret this rating eventually. I'm afraid I might be underrating The Revenant just a little. There are some really interesting juxtapositions between the beauty of nature and the violence it can inflict. The filmmaker Werner Herzog focuses on how heartless nature can be towards humanity, while director Terrence Malick does just the opposite. His films meditate on the wonder and beauty of nature. The Revenant feels like a melding of the two, but with the suffocating emphasis on the main character's pain, the movie looses any sense of forward propulsion.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- It's official, Domhnall Gleeson is in every movie in 2015. He has a small part here as the captain of the hunting expedition. Even though his screen time is brief, the ubiquitous Irishman is as great as always.
- It would be an all day event, but it would be interesting to pair The Revenant and The Hateful Eight in a double feature. The clashing of the two movies set in the old west, one striving for verisimilitude, the other a hyper-stylized representation, would spark some great conversation.
- Iñárritu is known for wallowing in the misery of his main characters. Birdman was a small exception, because even though he injected a lot of comedy into that movie, everyone on screen was still pretty emotionally beaten up. I've loved all the movies I've seen that Iñárritu has directed. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel are all worth checking out, but again, there's a little more to go with the pain than there is with this movie.