Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu
Written by Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Inarritu
With the advent of Awards season comes the piling on of praise upon the most spectacular films released in the final quarter of the year. In this case that year is 2015, and one such film is The Revenant. Having just basically swept the Golden Globes (which are the Golden Globes and as such should not be taken quite as seriously as other awards, but it’s still impressive to sweep) by taking home Best Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Actor – Drama for Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant seemingly has tons of momentum going into not only the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild Awards, but the granddaddy of them all, the Academy Awards. Of course, having just won Best Director/Best Picture last year for his film Birdman, it seems like a mountain to climb to repeat for Alejandro G. Inarritu, but nothing is impossible. And as for Leonardo DiCaprio, it seems his time has been coming for nearly a decade to finally win the Best Actor statue.
Of course, Inarritu and DiCaprio didn’t have to climb a literal mountain to make this film, but from what we hear of the production of the film, they might as well have, and that grueling reality comes across on screen as well. Filmed predominantly in Canada in the winter months, the frontier landscape of the film came across as authentic. DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a navigator of a fur trading expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). When the company is attacked by Natives, they are forced to flee. Isolated in the wilderness, Glass is mauled by a bear, prompting the group to split up, as John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the young Bridger (Will Poulter) volunteer to stay behind to ensure the weak Glass lives as long as possible before returning to camp. But when Fitzgerald has other, unsympathetic ideas, Glass is forced to fend for himself in the cold, dangerous wilderness, wrecked by the gnarly bear mauling.
Alejandro G. Inarritu is an audacious and ambitious filmmaker, no doubt. Birdman showed his adept ability to craft a technically and narratively taut film from start to finish, but with The Revenant, Inarritu is attempting to boldly make a film in a natural setting using the ugly and beauty of nature as key players in his tale. Much has been made concerning the production of the film, but that should hardly speak to the finished product’s artistic merit, which ultimately falls short of not just the film’s lofty goals, but also the flourish of accolades already being bestowed upon it. The film is a technical marvel, I will give it that. The sound design and art direction (including makeup and costumes) are gorgeous, while the cinematography from master Emmanuel Lubezki is especially breathtaking, recalling his recent work with famed director Terrence Malick in its beauty, yet the film lacks the philosophical or lyrical beauty of a Malick-ian narrative.
Inarritu appears to be longing for the type of film Malick would make at times, pitting the harsh conditions of nature against its own natural beauty, but he also wants a film about a vengeful survivor and I’m not quite sure the two mix as well as they may have looked on paper. Much of the run time of the film, which spans a bloated 2 hours 36 minutes, is spent depicting the unsurvivable conditions Glass is put through, which appears to be more than is humanly possible, seemingly just for the enjoyment of seeing how much DiCaprio is capable of going through, and how much he is willing to do to win his Oscar. In some ways the entire film can be used as an analogy of Leo bearing the harsh landscape of Hollywood to survive and bring revenge on actors like Tom Hardy who, despite incredible performances from Leo, seem to pick the same year (or in this case the same film) to deliver a superior turn (though Tom Hardy does push the limit of his Tom Hardy-ness as Fitzgerald).
We receive glimpses into Glass’ past, seeing a burning Native village and woman, presumably his Native American wife. Yet these fleeting flashbacks fail to add any real depth or context to the character of Glass. The film instead decides to focus on the vengeful nature of Glass for what Fitzgerald has done to him, and his incredible journey of survival. These are well and good, and can be, at times, incredible to witness. But within that bloated run time I mentioned earlier, there is surprisingly little effort made to build or display a past relationship or experience between Glass, his son Hawk, and the departed wife/mother. The time instead is spent to craft a decent, sprawling and even oftentimes boring, frontier survival story in a landscape dressed up as best as possible by Lubezki.