Wrapping up 2015: The Revenant
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a gorgeous depiction of terrible things happening. I wish there was more to say about it than that. Many harrowing events unfold; as empathetic people we wince and cringe and remember that this is based on a true story, so there’s decent chance some of this awful stuff really did happen. It looks lovely. It’s very well acted. And aside from its intermittent gross-outs, I can’t recall much else that it made me feel.
OK, so I’m a sucker for good visuals. Let’s talk about those for a bit. Emmanuel Lubezki has nature photography down. We knew this ten years ago when he was nominated for an Oscar (which he should have won) for Terrence Malick’s The New World. Look, I’m an unabashed Lubezki fan. Whether he’s working with Malick, Alfonso Cuaron, or Iñárritu, his camera swoops into the scene and skittishly looks around like someone getting their bearings. His wide shots are always painterly but not overly luxe; pretty as they are they’re still doing their job of setting the scene. And when situations call for mud, blood, and spittle, he makes sure we feel caked in it.
I just wish it was in service of a movie that was about something more than its face value. Many things happen in The Revenant, but there’s not much under the surface. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a tracker and hunter and guide for a large hunting party. The group of 40 is reduced to 8 in the opening minutes, when a party of Arikara warriors attack the hunters’ camp. The survivors include Hugh’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald wears villainy like a medal. He repeatedly makes clear that he cares more about making his money from this excursion than any individual’s life. He tries to goad Hawk, who is half-Pawnee, into attacking him with racist diatribes. All of this is before Hugh is attacked by a bear, after which Fitzgerald really gets his evil on.
The bear attack scene has been widely talked about, and rightly so. It is a spectacular set-piece. The Revenant comes alive during its action sequences, and this one is a standout. It’s a harrowing single-take sequence that uses that technique well; it refuses to look away from the horror, keeping us trapped up close as Glass fights for his life. When it’s over, Glass is so shredded we wonder how he doesn’t bleed out in seconds. It seems likely that only the bitter cold keeps him from succumbing to infection.
This sequence, plus the attack that opens the film, are The Revenant at its best. The technical craft is so sublime, the tension so brutal that it’s impossible not to be riveted. The problem is, the film is 2 hours and 36 minutes long.
No amount of time is inherently too long for a movie, of course; a bad 90 minute film feels longer than a good 3 hour film. The Revenant‘s biggest issue isn’t its length; it’s that it doesn’t use that time to amount to much. Once Hugh Glass is abandoned by his men, the film becomes about his survival. He goes through a gauntlet of terrible things. There comes a point where these ordeals are no longer inherently riveting. He doesn’t grow as a character. Nor does anyone else. Fitzgerald, who abandons Hugh for dead and murders Hawk in the process, only grows more brazenly evil as the film progresses. Hardy, to his credit, gives this character his all. He could have gnashed his teeth and wrung his hands and cackled the whole time and it would have been more in spirit with how Fitzgerald is written. Hardy is a very charismatic actor. We reflexively want to assume his characters have depth, but Fitzgerald is maddeningly one-dimensional; his scenes consist of his doing bad things or insisting that those bad things are justified. Are more nuanced antagonist would have done wonders to give this film, and Hugh’s desire for revenge, more weight.
Hugh’s journey does have some interesting moments. He meets a wandering Pawnee hunter who feeds him, builds him a shelter, and helps him recover from his injuries. The film does a decent job of bringing First Nations characters to prominence. For example, the Arikara chief who leads the raid that opens the film is looking for his daughter, who has been kidnapped by white hunters. We also get glimpses of Hugh’s earlier life, how he lived for some time with a Pawnee tribe and fell in love with Hawk’s mother. These interludes are welcome, but feel stretched thin by the long running time.
Unfortunately, for all its beauty, The Revenant simply isn’t interesting. For the most part, it’s not even as harrowing as you’d expect. A series of unfortunate events is not inherently fascinating; we have to be invested in the people going through them. Hugh survives ordeal after ordeal, and once in a while reminds us that he wants revenge on Fitzgerald by carving “Fitzgerald killed my son” into the earth. But we don’t see him grow or change or express much emotion aside from desperation. The third act feels like it should be triumphant or cathartic or something, but it all feels obligatory. There’s been no narrative buildup, and thus no satisfying payoff. It’s not a boring film; it’s just not gripping. It’s always beautiful, and the performances are all strong. This isn’t DiCaprio’s best performance, but it might be his most… well, “most” by itself is a pretty good descriptor. He is asked to portray a man who begins his story already a weathered shell of a person and whose only arc is to slowly transform into leather. He does this as well as I imagine it can be done. DiCaprio has always been best at broad, big emotive acting, and he has ample opportunity for that here. It’s not surprising he’s the Oscar frontrunner; he doesn’t have a killer monologue, but I sense that won’t matter voters when they see him desperately carving out a dead horse’s guts to use the carcass as a shelter. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is much like the horse corpse he turns into a bed; bloody, messy, and pretty hollow.