The Revenant so badly wants to be a great film that it ends being just a pretty good film. That isn’t to say there is no vision here. Oh boy, there is one. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, director of 2014 best picture winner Birdman (which I very much enjoyed), trekked into the wilderness and came back with an artful revenge tale. I won’t bore you with the details of it’s production, which was apparently hell, as every single movie site has made WELL KNOWN.
We flip our history book back to 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was left for dead by his men after a bear attack. Tom Hardy plays nefarious fur trapper, Huck Fitzgerald, who concocts a dastardly scheme of death for the good of the group. All he’s missing is a mustache to twirl.
This is a time when fur trappers went into an unrelenting wilderness full of grisly violence. Told through long, but beautiful icy unbroken takes, Inarritu and co. aim to simultaneously capture a survival tale, a revenge film, and a meditative art picture about ideas of god and nature and yada yada yada. So there’s a few different films going on in this piece, and each have their moments, but none are quite fully realized.
The fluid camera only seems to sorta fit the meditative aspect. Imagine a visionary Michael Bay mimicking Malick. I love cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, but I really wish they’d been more subtle and versatile with the approach. It worked well in Birdman because that’s a film about EGO, so the boisterous & in your face camera work is quite fitting. In this film, the language feels obtrusive to the story. The two emotional components are Hugh losing his son to Huck and his journey to get revenge on Huck. I felt nothing for either. Intimacy is bowled over by flashy showmanship. Though it’s important to note the film aims for a subjective experience.
Inarritu doesn’t mean for this, but it sortttaaaa comes off that he wants you to know he’s “artistic,” and he is, but it’s distracting and feels like he’s making a completely different film from the story that’s really happening. We’ve got a revenge story about a man who treks through the wilderness to find the man who killed his son. Throughout he has obstacles; Native Americans, bears, the cold, injuries etc. plague him. Yet, the camera language suggests it has little interest in these things and feels more interested in larger ambitions.
Towards the latter half I finally felt the scale beginning to set in and almost….. almost it begins to take on The Lord of the Rings-ish use of expansive space where you feel like if you took an aerial shot above the film it’d look like a giant map with icons laid out all over the place. “Oh there’s the woods where Hugh was attacked by the bear! There’s where the french fur trappers set up camp!” “The big fight!” But as I said…. almost 🙁
Luckily, there are set pieces that are utterly thrilling and captivating. The opening battle is visceral and the bear sequence is one of the finest pieces of cinema I’ve seen this year. I LOVE the content of this film but I have major issues with the meandering form used.
Shot after shot, scene after scene, is meditative images of nature that are removed from Hugh’s quest. Sure, a lot of it is beautiful imagery but without any attachment to story, it’s fluff. Leave the philosophy to another film because you’ve not emotionally grounded this one! You got a good story here and you’re wasting it!
When The Revenant isn’t trying to be great, it becomes great, but these stunning sequences are 45 minutes in a 2.5 hour film. Beautiful landscapes are left to admire from afar because there’s little emotional hold. Inarritu is adamant on making this a spiritual film but the macho carnage and brutality doesn’t mesh with his spiritual quandaries told through this fluid language. I wish he’d explored the former instead of the latter.
And really, his BIG quandaries through the often stunning images felt too simple and in your face (a mountain of skulls, bison being attacked by wolves). Inarritu is nearly copy and pasting Malick and Tarkovsky into a brutal survival story. Without connection his lyricism is superficial and without relevance. Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and recently Carnahan’s The Grey, pulled this ambition off to much greater effect.
Here’s the kicker, the genre staples (white man vs. indians, one on one fights, finding food, making fire) are the best parts of this film. Don’t get me wrong, I hugely admire the gargantuan attempt here and I tip my hat to all involved. We need more filmmakers to shoot for the stars. It’s the most ambitious film of the year, but for me it’s a beautifully shot, grim, meandering mess with a great survival tale lurking inside.
Superficially a treat, but a lack of emotional grounding makes it a sometimes thrilling but inert, epic. I loved sequences and admire the ambition but, honestly, I don’t know how good The Revenant ends up being. You need to go see it and decide for yourself.