It is tempting to call Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant a disappointment. The problem is that I was having trouble understanding what all the fuss over the trailer was about in the first place. So for me it’s less a disappointment than it’s exactly what I expected. It’s a very long, beautifully crafted, rather gray movie. It is without a doubt a cinematic tour de force, showing off Iñárritu’s penchant for grueling long takes and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s ability to film them (or at least offer a convincing simulation of them). Oh, it’s not as elaborate as the single-take illusion of last year’s Birdman, but its visual panache — aided no end by an extensive use of wide-angle lenses that enhance the scope and give the film a mildly surreal feeling — is undeniable. As a technical exercise, The Revenant is hard to fault — and that will doubtless be enough for some. As compelling drama, it’s on less firm ground. It is most assuredly no Birdman — not in the least because here Iñárritu has lost all sense of playfulness and we’re back to the unrelenting grimness of Biutiful (2010).
Based in part on historical events and on the novel by Michael Punke, Iñárritu and horror movie scribe Mark L. Smith have created an 1820s survivalist nightmare with revenge at its center and duplicity aplenty. The situation is that real life Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) — the explorer guide of a group of fur trappers — was mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by the men set to watch him. Only afterwards, did Glass manage to make his way through a couple hundred miles of wilderness and disabuse them of their mistake. (He was apparently none too pleased.) That much appears to be reasonably authentic, but the stakes have been upped for dramatic purposes — and for some mystical trappings. (The following might be termed spoilers for those sensitive to such things, though I’d hardly call these things plot twists.) Presumably abandonment wasn’t enough, so Glass has been given a dead Pawnee wife (excellent for flashbacks and visions) and a living son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), by her. This allows Glass’ nemesis John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) — a thoroughly unlikable character who mumbles most of his dialogue — to murder Hawk — in front of the helpless Glass — in order to leave the supposedly dying man to his fate. Now it’s really about revenge.
The bulk of the film concerns the whole business of survival and revenge. According to Iñárritu, what he was after was to see what a man stripped of everything is capable of. Fine, I suppose, but this runs smack up against the question of whether or not the audience has been given the slightest reason to care about Glass. We’ve been given little characterization in the early scenes, and after the bear attack we’re given even less. It sounds glib, but a good deal of The Revenant really does consist of little more than a bloodied, matted, lumbering, grunting, presumably smelly Leonardo DiCaprio staggering through the gray wilderness as abuse after abuse is heaped on him.
Apparently, Iñárritu really put his actors, his technicians and himself through the wringer to make this film. It was an endurance test for everyone — and now it becomes a similar test for the audience. But to what end? There’s just nothing and no one here to be invested in. It’s a lot of work — for little, if any, benefit. I’m not calling The Revenant a bad film. As I noted, as pure filmmaking, it’s amazing. On any other level, however, there’s just not much there. Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.