Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Runtime: 156 minutes
So much for levity. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, fresh off an Oscar win for Best Director is back, and unlike Birdman, his new project is very, very serious. And yet, after the emotional and technical highwire act of Birdman, something seems to have shaken loose in the director's approach to darker material. The Revenant, despite its share of heavy going and brutal events, may mark a return to expected territory for Inarritu, but it does so in a way that suggests the director's approach to straight drama may finally be evolving. By turns plodding and powerful, this bleak anti-Western has enough going for it that it manages to overcome several gaping weaknesses.
Those weaknesses take some time to become apparent, as Inarritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith waste no time in plunging the viewer into an intense, visceral story. After a quick, Malick-esque opener, The Revenant kicks off with a stunning battle made all the more immersive by Emmanuel Lubezki's roving, deep-focus photography (it plays out like a Herzog movie on steroids). As in Birdman (albeit to a lesser degree), The Revenant is mostly comprised of lengthy, unbroken shots. And, perhaps to better effect here than in Inarritu's showbiz black comedy, the camera work feels more purposeful in terms of drawing one in to a different place and time.
Set in the first half of the 1800s, The Revenant's eventual plot concerns Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a fictionalized version of a real frontiersman), a fur trapper with some of the worst luck imaginable. The opening confrontation with a Pawnee tribe sends Glass' expedition scrambling for a new route home, and it doesn't get much better from there. Though most in the crew (including characters played by Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter) respect Glass' knowledge of the local terrain, there is understandable division in how to proceed. Leading the opposition is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), driven purely by a desire to get to a trading post ASAP and collect their earnings. Everything goes (further) south when Glass has an absolutely horrific encounter with a grizzly bear, which is - like most of the setpieces in the film - presented in an unflinching shot that represents a visual endurance test. Soon Glass, with no help from Fitzgerald, is left for dead, which of course he isn't.
It takes close to an hour for this first leg of the journey to transpire, though the constant sense of movement prevents the film from drowning in its own dour atmosphere. Inarritu's previous dramas have often been met with criticism for either being overbearingly heavy or obnoxiously contrived. With The Revenant, based in part on true events, at least now the director has found a story where his tendency towards self-important dramatics actually fits the material.
So much of The Revenant works so well that it's not until near the finale that one of the biggest issues with the script rears its head: DiCaprio's Glass is not a terribly well-formed character. While the film's other roles allow for (admittedly straightforward) characterization, Glass himself remains a bit vacant. The decision to shoot just about the entire film on location pays off in spades from a filmmaking standpoint, but this has somehow happened at the expense of the writing. Aside from grunting in pain, DiCaprio spends most of the movie doing stunts, rather than building a character. Physicality can a be powerful component of a performance, but when the entire role is built around strenuous activity, it's hard to feel even a passing intellectual connection or sense of empathy. DiCaprio does at least get one strong moment before the final showdown, but with so much time spent just watching him survive, it feels a bit thin in retrospect.
With Glass' characterization left out in the wilderness, the emotional core of the film resembles the frozen-over quality of the visuals. The other actors, at least, get to do something other than function as human rag dolls. Gleeson does some fine work as a co-leader of the expedition convinced that Glass is dead, while Will Poulter is excellent in his limited scenes as a crew member concealing the ugly truth. The film's emotional high points arise not from Glass' arc, but from interactions between other characters about Glass' fate. Hardy, trading in the scorched earth of Mad Max for the snow-covered American frontier, is a solid villain as well, even though much of his dialogue is difficult to decipher.
What The Revenant lacks in in-depth character development, it oddly makes up for with broad-strokes symbolism. Inarritu's hand can be a bit too heavy to create something truly transcedant, but he manages to extract some striking moments of poetry out of all of the chaos. Dreams and flashbacks play a key role in giving the film a broader historical context, and are often more informative than what takes place in the present. Glimpses of Glass' Native American wife, as well as the rampant decimation of Native tribes at the hands of white colonizers, do a compelling job of subverting the traditional cowboys-and-indians notion of classic Westerns.
Bridging the gap between dream and reality is a subplot centered on a group of Pawnee warriors going after a missing woman from their tribe. This narrative thread, a head-scratcher at first, ends up working in the film's favor as an inverted parallel of the central plot. Glass seeks revenge for being left for dead (as well as the murder of his mixed-race son) to try, now that he has nothing left to live for despite living in land taken by force by his fellow white explorers. The Pawnee tribe, meanwhile, is out to reclaim one of their own, taken by the same white explorers, so that they can do their best to stay united as their numbers dwindle as a result of the bloody path cut by "Manifest Destiny." Whether or not Glass gets revenge, he has the option of continuing to build a life for himself. The Pawnee, however, are faced with literal extinction. The film's final scene merges these two angles together for a disquieting end. It positions the The Revenant not as a heroic tribute to human endurance, but rather a bitter and mournful condemnation of the whitewashed, not to mention hideous, violence that formed modern America, and continues to poison its collective moral conscience to this day.
Is this slow-building symbolism enough to justify the lack of development for DiCaprio's role? Well...kind of. Actual investment in Glass as an individual would have only heightened the film's eventual message. Juxtaposing one man's suffering against the destruction of entire races is a smart idea, but it requires more than a noteworthy face to make such a conceit hit home beyond intellectual understanding. The Revenant does so much right, however, that the thinly sketched ideology is elevated above being merely serviceable. It's a oddball case of style emphasizing and fleshing out substance in ways the source can't quite grasp. It's in the periphery, not the central journey, where the The Revenant starts to thaw out and push beyond its immaculate surface.