When Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu made Birdman last year, it felt like a bit of a departure based on his previous work. Since Amores Perros, he had made his career on dark, oppressive and depressing takes on the interconnectedness of life in films like 21 Grams and Biutiful, so the prospect of a comedy from the man seemed odd. Of course, some would contend that only Inarritu could make a comedy as baldly misanthropic as Birdman was, and despite the presence of jokes, it was not really that far off from his core tenets as a filmmaker. Birdman, of course, won him Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director, making his next feature something to watch for indeed. Luckily (for those who were fans of Birdman, at least), they would not need to wait long, as one year later, Inarritu has returned with The Revenant.
Telling his version of the story of real-life fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), hired by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) to help navigate an expedition into uncharted Montana. The crew, also including the almost maniacally selfish John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and their young companion Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). After being forced to abandon their pelt haul due to an attack from a Native American tribe, the group is heading back to civilization when Glass is unexpectedly mauled by a bear he managed to kill before it landed the death blow. Presumably destined to die at any moment, Fitzgerald and Bridger elect to stay behind alongside Glass’ Native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) to give him a proper burial after he succumbs to his injuries. Fitzgerald, though, is less interested in doing the right thing and much more interested in getting back to town to receive his bounty for staying behind, convincing Bridger to go along with him as he buries Glass alive and heads off back to the group.
Inarritu has once again teamed with superstar cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski (winner of the last two cinematography Oscars for Gravity and Birdman), who immediately makes himself felt in the film’s first salvo, a surprise attack that leaves the trappers scrambling for safety as unseen Native Americans besiege them with arrows. Inarritu and Lubezki stage the confrontation via a series of long takes marked by a wildly shifting camera that acts like a member of the group trying to find from where the attacks are coming. The blue gray color palette, the extreme violence and the disorientation of it all hearkens back to Lubezki’s work on Children of Men, and, for the first act at least, it is mightily effective. The clash of muskets and arrows, the arcs of arterial blood, the screams, it all melds into a harrowing chaos, evoking the untold dangers of the frontier life. Equally effective in creating the tone of the film is Tom Hardy, as despicable as any cad could be, once again finding the pitch perfect (if not necessarily accurate) accent that makes him impossible to look away from the second he hits the screen. The movie is owned by DiCaprio, but Hardy makes for a formidable foil.
It is after that first thirty to forty minutes that the film begins to lag. As Glass is confronted with the prospect of dragging his broken body across a frozen wasteland, unable to communicate beyond breathing heavily and coughing up blood, Inarritu seems to revel in the cruelty of it all, using it as a call to action for Glass’ will to survive via long, near silent scenes as he is continually challenged by an uncaring wilderness. There is no doubting DiCaprio’s commitment and conviction, screaming and grunting and groaning and foaming at the mouth, his wispy beard flecked with ice, gore staining the white snow beds, but after nearly ninety minutes of it, it cannot help but wear out its welcome. Inarritu is ascribing to a bit of a more is more mentality with The Revenant, and after his tricks are repeated for the dozenth time, they lose their collective effectiveness and momentum.
The biggest issue with The Revenant is that it does not transcend its surface considerations. There are those who see it as a rumination on survival and the human condition, a human condition defined not by indomitable spirit but the truly motivating all-consuming rage and desire for vengeance (rage and vengeance are, after all, key motivators in nearly all of his films), and Inarritu certainly sows the seeds for such an outlook, but it is too often obscured by the almost absurd virtuosity of it all. The long takes, the camera moves, DiCaprio’s seething performance, it can all work in moderation, but pitched up to 11 over the course of over 150 minutes, it punishes itself into submission. Punishing films can be rewarding, look no further than Twelve Years a Slave for a recent example, but if they do not push past the punishment to a deeper truth, it is more difficult to justify the punishment itself. There are good aspects of The Revenant. It is technically masterful and often spellbinding, and Hardy’s performance at least is powerfully magnetic. It is neither a bad film nor a great film (though it might be Inarritu’s best since Amores Perros, certainly a step up from both Birdman and Biutiful), a tough sit that cannot quite come together to make it fully worth its experience.