The Revenant is a film primarily focused on survival. As endlessly documented in the press junkets leading to the film’s release, Leonardo DiCaprio and director Alejandro GonzÃ¡lez IÃ±Ã¡rritu went through hell to shoot this film, resulting in a ballooning budget, a lack of snow and near hypothermia for everyone involved. Indeed, IÃ±Ã¡rritu was a true stickler for realism, shooting the entire film in natural light and insisting upon using as little CG as possible to achieve all the death defying acts, including DiCaprio’s character being nearly mauled to death by a bear. All of this information is intriguing and gives an fascinating insight into how far the production of a modern film is still willing to take such noticeable risks. Yet, none of them answer the most important question about The Revenant; without any of that foreknowledge around the production, does the film give its audience much to invest in on a plot or story level?
The Revenant revolves around a group of fur trappers and hunters in 1823, who are quasi sponsored by the military to explore the land of The Louisiana Purchase. Following a major battle that takes out the majority of the party, a small group of survivors tries to make it to base camp. This includes leader Captain Andrew Henry (played by 2015’s favorite red head Domnhall Gleeson), a sinisterly practical motives named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a young trapper conflicting influences named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and one of the more experience hunters Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) & his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). As the group attempts to make it back, Hugh is attacked to a near fatal degree by a bear, leaving him near catatonic. Henry offers a reward for three men to stay with Glass, which Hawk, Jim and Fitzgerald claim. After a short period of time, Fitzgerald attempts to kill Hugh before being stopped by a screaming Hawk, whom Fitzgerald murders while a helpless Hugh watches. Fitzgerald convinces Bridger to leave the remaining Glass for dead, burying him within a pit of dirt. Hugh then rises from his makeshift grave, allowing him to walk through hell and back to take vengeance against Fitzgerald.
So, at it’s core, The Revenant‘s story of survival is based around vengeance. Hugh Glass is a character who the audience should want to see battle through the elements to get some sort of solace. We want to see him take the revenge for his son, though have that authentic sense of moral ambiguity over whether or not such revenge would satisfy the hole in his heart taken by such a loss. Yet, that emotional drive doesn’t seem to be there. This is mainly due to the lack of time really spent on developing the relationship between Hugh and Hawk. The Revenant is instead so much more focused on seeing Glass go through a cycle of torture inflicted upon himself, with only the occasionally thinly investing flashback dream sequence to reveal his inner turmoil over the racial prejudice that separated him from both his late wife and son. It’s a fertile topic for dissection that the film occasionally touches on with a side story involving Native Americans living on the Louisiana Purchase, but it’s simply left to the side in favor of DiCaprio’s exploits.
Yet, it’s not the only bit of under explored territory for The Revenant. There’s Domnhall Gleeson’s Captain Henry, who’s rushed into this main leadership role and trying to keep a grip on his company by any means. There’s Will Poulter’s Bridger, a young man caught between following his superiors and the guilt of leaving someone behind to die. There’s Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald, a racist with practical motives that’s devoted to his trade and cares not for others. Hardy in particular completely masks himself in the role, covered with a beard and distinctive accent that creates a compelling counter to DiCaprio that really comes to light as the more nuanced performance during his abandonment of DiCaprio and the finale. Yet, that palpable tension is one that’s avoided – yet again – in favor of the gorgeous vistas and moments of terror that DiCaprio finds himself in. Even DiCaprio’s performance, as physically exhaustive as it clearly is, ultimately gives us only a tenth of the detail and mannerisms that Hardy or any of the other players are able to display.
Now, I keep harping on the lack of investment during these more elaborate moments in The Revenant, but I really can’t deny the effort Alejandro Gonzalaz IÃ±Ã¡rritu put into crafting some of these moments. Whether it be the rather heavily noted bear sequence or DiCaprio flowing down a riverbed, the technical proficiency here is phenomenal. Each one treats the elements of natural as true forces to fight against, taking no joy or malice in tearing DiCaprio apart. They’re just harsh and unfeeling to whatever situation Hugh finds himself in, which IÃ±Ã¡rritu showcases through very tight shots of DiCaprio in these scenarios and a massive sense of space thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki‘s expansive cinematography. All these set pieces become more and more elaborate, but the fact that DiCaprio gets past them all especially after already being near death removes any sort of true suspense or investment for Glass, resulting in us watching this guy suffer damage like a crash test dummy rather than a flesh and blood man who could die at any second.
Thus, The Revenant is ultimately as distant and cold as the glorious snowy vistas its shot on. All of the technical efforts put forth may end up giving IÃ±Ã¡rritu and his cohorts the same attention they ended up receiving for last year’s Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay & Cinematography winner Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance). Yet, unlike Birdman‘s more consistently intriguing ability to unveil how its entire cast unravels in an uncommon fashion, The Revenant is far more of a straight forward story focused firmly on one man that loses steam amongst its glorious shots and death defying stunts in the laborious 156 minute running time. It’s worth praising for moments of naturalistic horror, but the film is constantly at arm’s length from the audience on any intriguing emotional level. That detachment is enough for me to be genuinely interested in seeing how the film was made, but doesn’t intrigue me enough to ever see it again. Even in comparison to another film that focuses on more vague and mythic tales of character for the sake of giant spectacle like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant has far less intriguing moments of investing character moments, giving its grand spectacle an empty feeling of “now what?” by its end. To some degree, that’s the ultimate point of its culminating revenge plot… but the impact or weight of that isn’t even as intriguing as it wants to be.
The Revenant: (3 / 5)