Review: The Revenant (+ video review)
PLOT: After being attacked by a bear and left for dead by his comrades, 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass travels over 200 miles to seek revenge on the man who betrayed him.
REVIEW: It’s been a while since I’ve seen an actor put himself through almost literal hell the way Leonardo DiCaprio does in THE REVENANT. We’re always seeing thespians lose or gain weight for roles, engage in daring stunts, wear pounds of uncomfortable make-up, etc., but it’s not often we wonder just how genuinely unhealthy and dangerous the job was. In THE REVENANT, DiCaprio submerges himself in what must have been freezing water, he’s nearly buried alive, he’s brutally tossed around by (an admittedly computer-generated) bear, he falls down hills, he’s frequently shirtless in hypothermia-inducing climates, and the list goes on. DiCaprio does a lot with a little in the film, as his character ventures through many a harsh terrain to seek revenge at the expense of his own health and maybe even sanity.
DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, legendary 19th century frontiersman who, it is written, dragged, hiked and simply willed his way across 200 miles of harsh American terrain to find the men who abandoned him as he was on death’s door after a savage attack by a bear. Said bear attack is dramatized in a most intense, grueling sequence by director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who stages the moment so convincingly it’s hard to believe we’re not watching an actor nearly lose his life. But that’s Iñárritu’s clear M.O. throughout THE REVENANT, as he seeks to relay the icy harshness of Glass’ tribulations as unsparingly as possible. As Glass staggers across the wilderness, we’re alongside him for some very miserable times indeed; and at two and a half hours, THE REVENANT is filled to the brim with miserable times.
Before his unfortunate encounter with the grizzly (just a mother protecting her cubs), Glass was part of a fur-trading expedition hiking along the Missouri River in 1823. The expedition, led in part by Maj. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), appears to be going reasonably well in the film’s opening moments, but a sudden attack by “indians” thwarts the mission in a major way, killing a large number of the party with only ten men getting away with their lives. (This is a brilliantly staged sequence, utilizing several long takes that call to mind Iñárritu’s BIRDMAN although with substantially more arrows piercing chests and guns blowing off heads.) It’s soon after this nightmarish scenario that Glass gets mauled by the bear (he actually wins that fight, by the way!) and is reduced to a seemingly hopeless sack of shredded flesh and broken bones. Henry is determined to bring Glass along for the remainder of the group’s hike back to base camp, much to the annoyance of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a gruff malcontent already irked by the presence of Glass and Glass’s half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). (Glass was rumored to have spent a lot of time with the Native Americans, in addition to killing an American soldier in their defense.) When the group is no longer able to realistically carry Glass with them, Fitzgerald, Hawk and a young man named Bridger (Will Poulter) stay behind to either give the dying man a proper burial or wait out a rescue party.
The latter does not seem a likely option, and as he’s a man of little patience and considerable greed, Fitzgerald isn’t willing to wait for the stubborn Glass to expire naturally. When he goes to suffocate the man, Glass’ son attempts to stop the murder but is instead killed himself by the cowardly Fitzgerald, who soon after convinces Bridger to abandon Glass in a shallow grave. His unwillingness to die already established, Glass manages to crawl out of his crude burial place and begin his long, arduous pursuit of Fitzgerald and Bridger.
The remainder of the film is a slowly paced, often existential examination of Glass’ many trials as he braves the unfathomably cold elements. His mettle is further tested during encounters with the Native Americans who attacked his group in the opening, as well as a band of odious French trappers. We also occasionally accompany Fitzgerald and Bridger on their trek, allowing us brief insight into the mindsets of both men, with the younger man clearly more troubled with his actions than the older.
On the technical side of things, THE REVENANT is superb. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki present the film in frosty shades of blue and white, and as the latter reportedly shot the film using only natural light, the end result of their collaboration is nothing short of chilling. (Seriously, button up, because the freeze is palpable.) While the camerawork is always masterfully choreographed - the camera glides effortlessly up mountains and into raging rivers - Iñárritu allows a handful of instances for blood, water and fog to cloud up his lens, accentuating the you-are-there nature of the movie. There’s never a moment when the frame isn’t exuding both the glory and the danger of the untouched American frontier.
DiCaprio, as mentioned, gives every last bit of himself to the piece, his face consistently displaying a wide range of pain and discomfort. (Although his greatest bit of acting in the film is likely when he’s made to lie still and agonize while a great tragedy unfolds before him.) It may not be his best performance ever - I’m going to stick with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET for that - but the sheer pummeling he obviously takes is simultaneously unenviable and admirable. He’s probably going to win an Oscar for this, and while that may end up being for his impressive body of work as a whole, there’s no one who can say he doesn’t deserve the reward. If one of an actor’s primary jobs is to convince us they are one with the character they’re playing, Leo accomplishes that handily here.
Tom Hardy is also strong, although I find some fault with his accent, a Southern-sounding growl that resembles Jeff Bridges in over-the-top TRUE GRIT/RIPD/SEVENTH SON mode at times. As always, he’s a very imposing presence on the screen, and no less willing than DiCaprio to toss himself headlong into the muck for his craft. (After the unsparing productions of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE REVENANT, I feel like Hardy deserves a timid climate to relax in for a while.) As the only other real supporting actors of note, Gleeson and Poulter are both solid contributors, sympathetic and convincing.
With all of these attributes, I still come away from THE REVENANT thinking its pleasures are mostly surface-level. I admire its beauty and the obvious difficulty that came with making it, but my emotional response to it is somewhat muted. Glass, as a character, is not all that interesting because we don’t know a lot about him, aside from what we glean from brief snippets of flashbacks. He’s persistent, yes, and we sympathize with him because we’re by his side as he goes through a hell that we wouldn’t even dream of, but do we actually care about him? Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith give us little insight into the man, other than he’s almost supernaturally determined to survive.
It’s also a very long film; at two and a half hours, there are several sections where it drags. For the record, I have nothing against long films, as long as they hold my attention. As it must have really been, much of Glass’ journey is bereft of excitement, and we frequently find ourselves relegated to stretches where the movie slows to a crawl. It’s not always engrossing cinema, regardless of how good it looks.
THE REVENANT is sure to divide film fans into several camps; I already know people who love it, I know people who really dislike it. I find myself in between, although I suppose closer to the former, because there are too many excellent moments to ignore. I appreciate what Iñárritu, DiCaprio and the rest of the team accomplished while still coming away thinking it’s more of a technical triumph than a dramatic one.
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