On paper, The Revenant is the sort of movie I would normally be totally into. It’s a gritty, unsparing look at a man’s struggle to survive against impossible odds in order to take horrible vengeance on the man who killed his son, anchored by gutsy performances from actors I admire.
As wags say in a different context, though: "That’s why they play the game." The Revenant is, unfortunately, a muddled and lumpy affair, one whose occasionally brilliant flourishes are buried in an overlong movie in love with its own sense of grandiose suffering.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) lead a crew of traders through the wilderness in early 19th century America. As the furriers strip elk carcasses, they come under attack by a band of Ree Indians; their greenhorn captain, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), tries to mount a retreat to their boat on the river while the rough-and-tumble mountain man John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) grabs the furs they sweated for in order to keep the mission from being a total loss.
It’s a powerful sequence and director Alejandro G. Iñarritu handles it marvelously, filming it almost entirely from the perspective of traders surrounded by Indians they can’t see firing arrows they can’t stop. The camera alternately frames the band of besieged traders tightly and then spins out to the edge of the woods, scanning the horizon for signs of danger. Some of the shots that are grating elsewhere in the film—such as Iñarritu’s constant desire to shoot actors tightly and from below, creating a sort of mini-fisheye-lens effect—work perfectly here, creating a sense of tension.
Following the Ree raid, guide Glass convinces Henry to ditch the boats and head for safety on foot—a journey that becomes far more precarious after Glass is near-mortally wounded by a mama bear protecting her cubs. Throat cut, back torn to ribbons, and a fever rising, Glass’ grip on life is tenuous. So much so that Fitzgerald suggests putting him out of his misery then and there.
Henry can’t pull the trigger, instead leaving Fitzgerald, Hawk, and Bridger (Will Poulter) behind to watch over the man as he dies. Fitzgerald, never keen on the idea of keeping Glass around anyway, tries to cut short their watch by suffocating the guide—a move Hawk strenuously objects to, earning a knife to the ribs and eternal slumber for his troubles.
The rest of the film is largely concerned with three treks: Glass’ effort to not only survive but catch up with Fitzgerald; Fitzgerald and Bridger’s effort to arrive at the makeshift fort their company has holed up in until reinforcements arrive; and, for some reason, the Ree’s efforts to recapture the tribe’s chief’s kidnapped daughter. The Ree subplot seems tacked on, as if Iñarritu felt he had to give the Indians a noble reason for engaging in violence against the palefaces invading Louisiana territory. Or perhaps it’s a lesson in the commonality of man, that all of us care for our children and will do whatever we can to yadda yadda yadda.
Whatever the reason, Iñarritu might’ve been a bit better off hewing to the generic standards he so despises and focusing on the film’s protagonist and his enemy. The Revenant often wanders and is replete with shots of trees swaying in the wind, often accompanied with a voiceover that reminds us, endlessly, that trees with strong trunks will not snap in the wind. There’s a whiff of Malick throughout, and at more than two-and-a-half languidly paced hours, The Revenant often feels like an art house’s approximation of what an action-packed chase film is like rather than an action-packed chase film in and of itself.
DiCaprio seems destined to take home his long-coveted best acting Oscar despite the fact that this role largely consists of him making a series of distressed faces and limping around on a mangled leg: literally every expert in the Gold Derby poll has him winning. Far be it from me to disagree, though I can’t help but feel Hardy gives a far stronger performance as Fitzgerald. Voiced with an accent that sounds as if it originates from the outskirts of Baltimore, Fitzgerald and Bridger’s struggle is the most interesting aspect of the film by far.
There’s a haunting shot of the two, huddled next to a fire discussing the nature of God. Iñarritu’s fetishistic use of natural light throughout the film rarely rises above the level of unnecessary affectation. But the effect in this scene is chilling, as Hardy’s irises have grown to take up most of his eyes. The half-mad look complements his half-mad story about a half-mad man in a tree talking to the almighty. A pared-down version of The Revenant that spent a larger percentage of its time with this lunatic would be a movie well worth your time.