Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant can best be understood as the harrowing story of how one brave actor put himself through hell in order to get an Oscar. I say that because an attempt to engage with the film on any other level seems to me an unrewarding endeavor. It is too shallow and thematically muddled to have any interesting insights and too dull and lifeless to work as a straight up survival thriller. I guess this is what happens when the director is more interested in showing off his technical film making abilities and an actor motivated entirely by the promise of a gold statue as the end of the finish line.
The film’s plot consists of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) being abandoned and left for dead by his team of trappers in the Louisiana wilderness after a vicious grizzly bear mauls him half to death. Glass survives the attack and sets his mind to tracking down John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald was not only the man who left Glass behind but also the killer of Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The bulk of the film is spend with Glass as he encounters obstacle after grueling obstacle on his journey for vengeance.
I mentioned Inarritu being interested in flexing his technical muscles because of the film’s gimmick of being shot with all natural light. Admittedly, the cinematography is gorgeous and I would be remiss if I didn’t complement Emmanuel Lubezki’s excellent work. It has never really been a question that Inarritu has a handle on the aesthetic end of things. A lot of the individual shots in the film are breathtakingly gorgeous and the blocking and execution on a few of the film’s action sequences are impressive in their own right. The problem (as anyone who sat through the equally wretched Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance can attest) is that he is not glossing up anything worth looking at in the first place. If you question why he stages his scenes where he does or what he is thematically interested in you will often find yourself found wanting.
For example, a number of the characters discuss God throughout the course of the film. John Fitzgerald refers to himself as someone who “giveth and taketh away” before pulling the trigger on his rifle, which seems relevant when considering a story he tells about his father’s religion. In the story, his father claims that finding God is equivalent to finding food to eat when you’re hungry. Further religious references include Hugh Glass seeing his dead son in the ruins of a church and line about revenge being up to God. The problem is that these beats in the script do not seem to connect up with each other in any meaningful way. Inarritu is not telling this story to make any larger thematic points about God, the subject just keeps coming up.
The film is littered with this kind of thing. Inarritu consciously draws our attention to the camera lens by having characters and animals breath on it as well as by shooting in tight, uncomfortable close ups. The final shot of the film is one in which Glass looks directly at the camera. You would think this implies some kind of meta cinematic message or some commentary on stories and/or storytelling. Yet, I once again come up short in finding a through line that connects everything together. It is honestly as if Inarritu is doing a sophisticated impression of a complicated artist when he directs. He knows what shots will provoke the curiosity of the audience but seemingly has no idea why he is shooting the movie like that beyond mere provocation.
We cannot really talk about the movie without talking about the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio is receiving a lot of attention for his performance as Glass but I really don’t think is warranted. DiCaprio’s performance is a mad flurry of grunting and yelling that failed to impress me on any level. A lot has been said about the conditions under which the movie was filmed but that seems like an altogether separate issue. I have no interest in seeing movies with mediocre performances that I’m forced to say I liked just because the actors were in terrible filming conditions. Mad Max: Fury Road was reportedly incredibly difficult to make but I hardly feel the need to put an asterisk on any of the fine performances in that film. The rest of the performances are fine, with Tom Hardy as a particular stand out (which really should not surprise you at this point).
As a rule, I try to avoid writing off a movie like this so completely upon its initial release. Seldom do we recognize truly great movies as being truly great when they first come out. It is possible that film scholars will examine The Revenant and tie up the thematic stuff in a way that I just could not do. Usually I try to rewatch a film I have a profoundly negative reaction to and see if there was something I missed or some aspect I haven’t considered. I am tempted to suggest that I could come to appreciate the film in subsequent viewings but I will hold off on doing so because the thought of viewing the film again at this point just gives me a headache. As it stands, The Revenant is an overly long slog that is as indulgent and showy as it is empty. I cannot in good conscience recommend the film and all of the excitement around it is deeply confusing to me.