This week, I finally got around to watching the most Oscar nominated movie of the year, The Revenant. I’d been planning on reviewing it for a while, and it was even on my most anticipated movies of the year list, last year. Between then and now, it kind of fell off my list. I don’t know what happened. I loved Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman, and I love frontier/western movies. Somehow, this film just failed to light a fire with me…and after having seen it, I can’t say my opinion has changed. This movie is beautiful, and it really captures the danger and wonder of the frontier…it just never really made me excited to be watching it.
The Revenant (2015)
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a scout and frontiersman working for white trappers attempting to make a fortune trading furs in the Dakotas. While out on an expedition, the trappers come under fire of a Native American Ree tribe war party, who are looking for a woman who has been abducted by white mercenaries. Most of the trapper party is murdered, and Glass barely manages to escape with his son, who is part Pawnee, aboard a boat. Miles form safety and under constant attack, Glass advises that the best course of action is to abandon the boat and go over-land to the mountains, in order to throw off pursuers. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a canny and self-serving trapper with experience fighting natives, distrusts Glass and argues against the plan, and especially against the inclusion of Glass’ son, Hawk. When Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear while scouting the route, Fitzgerald takes the opportunity to dispose of Hawk and make himself out to be a hero. Glass survives his wounds, however, and follows the murderous Fitzgerald across the wilderness, intent only upon revenge.
Beautiful and Deadly
The real stand out feature of this film is the gorgeous cinematography. I can’t say if filming in natural light and in-sequence was more trouble than it was worth, but the end product is indeed visually potent. The landscape itself acts a silent antagonist, pushing the characters to their limits. The effects used to create iconic scenes such as the grizzly attack look excellent. The blood and gore, of which there is plenty, also are realistic, and they keep the audience immersed in the frequent bouts of violence that punctuate the long run time of the film. Dream sequences also break up the trek through the wilderness, and feature hallucinatory images that provide much of the backstory about our main character. The film would be perfectly intelligible if it were stripped of all dialogue, which it practically is.
Both leads of the film, DiCaprio and Hardy, put tons of physicality into their roles, but not a lot of depth. Glass has some good scenes early on interacting with his son Hawk, but after the grizzly attack he becomes pretty much a zombie, moving only because of his intent to avenge his loss. There are some moving scenes of Glass and his murdered Pawnee wife, and some tender interactions between him and a young Hawk, but those interactions have Glass silent, and show more of what outside events shaped him than who he is on the inside. His accent is hard to make out, and after the bear slits his throat, he gurgles more than talks. All of this creates an enigma of a character, one that the film leaves mostly up to inference. Similarly, Fitzgerald’s drawl is another instance of a Tom Hardy accent where he is all but incomprehensible. Hardy is given more chances to narrate his own story as he attempts to win the confidence of a young survivor from the doomed trapping party, and when you can understand a word he is saying, his character comes to life. My usual gripes about Hardy being impossible to parse stands, but I actually appreciated his performance here better than DiCaprio’s: Leo appears to be enduring his role, while Hardy feels much more natural.
What Are You Saying?
At the end of the viewing experience, I was left with the sense of having seen a very beautifully made revenge story that didn’t do much more than tell a story of revenge. There wasn’t any great insight into the workings of the main characters, or much take away from the harsh environment other than that life is brutal. The Revenant has much of the visual stamps and directorial quirks of Inarritu’s other works (he sure loves levitating characters and low angle shots,) but not as much depth as his other pieces. In Bird Man or Babel, you come away from the experience having seen a character challenged to grow, and Inarritu usually ends the film just as the change is about to occur. Here, we leave a man who has been hollowed out by vengeance, and there is no indication what will fill the murderous hole once the camera stops rolling. Perhaps that is the message, but it comes very late after several hours of unreflective violence.