The Revenant d. Alejandro González Iñárritu (2015)
Filmed largely in unspoiled parts of Canada in a narrow daily winter window affording natural light, The Revenant certainly effects a suitable 1820s western vibe (to the layman at least; I’m no scholar of the period). It also does a great job of evincing a sense of estrangement, volatile dread, and alienation. The harsh splendour of the environment is arguably the main protagonist: these are vast, unfathomable stretches of bleakly beautiful wilderness, amid which man, inevitably, can only foolishly squabble and skirmish. It’s Cormac McCarthy territory.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu makes fine use of his locations. The bleached-out winter sun drapes the central characters (fractious and tentative fur-trappers led by Domnhall Gleeson and including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Will Poulter) in icy gold. They’ve plenty to distract them from the unforgiving conditions: they’re unceasingly harried by hunger, the elements, and a pursuing mob of Indians. The latter are seeking their Chief’s kidnapped daughter; this confrontation, between Indian Americans and scavenging colonists, will intermittently play out and finally conclude the film. For the rest of the duration we witness DiCaprio and his half-Indian son bear the brunt of Tom Hardy’s mercenary disregard, and the eventual, unlikely reprisals.
We first find our wild bunch of primitive entrepreneurs under siege, and they take a fair few terminal hits, the survivors barely fleeing the arriving avengers by boat. A strategic decision is taken by DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass — opposed by Hardy — to ditch the boat and cut another, less exposed routeback to their hamlet with their prized clutch of animal hides. But as they pitch up for the night on their alternate route home, DiCaprio, wandering into the woods, is savaged by a bear (a horribly detailed and authentically created attack). He somehow survives being rigorously chewed over and picked at and, as the motley band make their sluggish passage onward, lugging their prone number across barely-negotiable terrain, they reach an impasse. Unable to carry their critically-maimed cohort up the precarious, disintegrating side of a hillside, and reasonably expectant of his imminent demise, they arrange for someone to stay behind until the moment arrives and provide dignified burial. Unfortunately for DiCaprio, those presiding over his mangled and moribund body include Hardy, who will shortly kill the son (as DiCaprio watches) and dupe Will Poulter’s naive underling into believing the Indians are on their way, hastening a departure that leaves DiCaprio, too debilitated to speak of what he’s seen, to a certain death.
Hardy and Poulter return home, the latter by now aware of the betrayal, and stick to their story, assuming DiCaprio is doomed regardless. Poulter refuses the extra pay offered for his hanging back and broods. Hardy, certain DiCaprio is dead anyway, is soon boozing it up.
But of course DiCaprio’s blood-and-mud smeared wraith lives, slowly rehabilitating, sewing up flapping wounds and plugging throat-holes that squirt water, narrowly evading recapture, gradually strengthening for inevitable vengeance. He drags himself through and across the perilous miles between him and his nemesis, is saved once more, saves the captured Indian daughter, and eventually stumbles into the path of the men who believed him dead. Hardy has already bolted, but is soon found (with swift ease, so it seemed) and the final reckoning ensues.
The performances are uniformly great, but Domnhall Gleeson, excellent in Ex Machina, feels out of place here. He’s a fine actor who seems to be in everything at the moment, and he does an admirable job but, as with Star Wars, doesn’t pervade the requisite amount of testosterone or disquieted, spoiled masculinity to carry off such a role. He’s never the character: he’s always Domnhall Gleeson in 1820s getup. Will Poulter doesn’t suffer the same fate: Poulter has one of those faces (a shame he’s no longer to play Pennywise in Cary Fukunaga’s aborted reboot of IT), and delivers a never-questionable portrayal of a gauche, nervy kid with integrity. DiCaprio is exceptional, although delivers nothing new (he doesn’t have to – he’s always been vastly under-rated and mastered all these moves, albeit less beardfully, twenty years ago in This Boy’s Life, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Basketball Diaries). Tom Hardy is perhaps the standout, though: gruffly vacillating, querulously nasty and entirely convincing.
Director Iñárritu continues his favoured theme on a grander scale: individuals only matter to themselves, and only as part of a community can anyone wrangle a meaningful existence. Set to these kinds of backdrop that message is diminished rather than emphasised. In capturing the heartlessly eloquent landscape he merely serves to accentuate the paucity of these men, the best of which, at the end, revenge mission complete, is left with nothing (“All I have left is that boy.”) but to ponder those mountains and lakes and skies and his own misery and settled scores to no end. He is utterly broken, redemption seemingly impossible. There is resolution but no hope, and the film doesn’t linger in the memory beyond the recollection of well-executed set-pieces. Unlike with the aforementioned Cormac McCarthy, there is no magic, no poetry, no numinous sense of unseen forces at work. There are no real polarities, perhaps due to a lack of depth. These are rough-hewn protagonists of no real substance: we get only their sharp edges and only the brilliance of the performances brings them close to life; not quite close enough to inject the emotional charge lacking. We see DiCaprio in flashback as a doting family man, but such spliced moments don’t do enough to counterpoint the dismal and unrelenting savagery. Iñárritu seems eager to spend time at the end of tethers, and for that and the lack of substantive interiority the film’s longevity will suffer. The landscape will always win: there is little succor in DiCaprio’s relatively small victory. We don’t know enough about him beyond placeholder images to invest in his character; we are hurtled into prolonged chaos before we can truly feel anything other than cosmetic awe.
Films such as The Revenant can run only so far on vitriol and evocative panache. There has to be something human and full-blooded to distinguish the film from its symbolic aspirations. Comparative examples, though less technically interesting or visually assured, such as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Jeremiah Johnson, or even The Last of the Mohicans, feel richer and much more immersive than this often spectacular but ultimately cold exercise.
So you’re left with a brilliantly executed minor film, vastly entertaining but ultimately as remote as the locations. The philosophy, a worldview that worked so well in the dark, cosseted warmth of Birdman’s theater as an interesting means of looking at performance, legacy, belonging, and identity, seems a little lost and a little facile here. There are no real non-stylistic risks taken. There is supremely impressive camerawork (a fairly astounding sequence on horseback; a Saving Private Ryan-bettering siege full of blood-flowered water and harrowing violence, twanging arrows and jolting verisimilitude; the aforementioned bear confrontation), and Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki fully deserve inevitable Oscars (as do DiCaprio and Hardy). But there is unquestionably something missing. The Revenant is a better sum of parts than a whole.
When, during the last scene, DiCaprio is spared in recognition of a prior deed, and passed over rather than vanquished, the escape is meant to be a resounding moment of karmic rapprochement, but is instead bittersweet; a man who doesn’t really want to live must contend with having to, after all. It’s a grim and hopeless vision, an entirely transactional world that our soul-sick protagonist must now endure. You wonder why Iñárritu went to such lengths to say so little so loudly. It doesn’t really reverberate.