Coming off of a career high with Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu struggles to establish himself as an auteur with his latest film, The Revenant, a vapid revenge western under a false guise of something greater. Instead of an artistic and thoughtful endeavor, the film is an overwhelming display of Iñárritu’s most miserable tendencies, and underwhelming in all other departments. Iñárritu’s pandering for artistic justification is too overbearing to ignore as The Revenant devolves into less of a film and more of an exercise in misery. Even as David O. Russell and Tom Hooper, two of the English language’s most notable and current auteurs, floundered with tepidly received films this year, their artistic visions shone through in Joy and The Danish Girl, respectively. All Iñárritu blessed The Revenant with is an air of pretension and a false, grandiose canvas for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to paint on.
Set in Western America around the 1820s, The Revenant opens with a full-scale battle between a camp of fur trappers and a local Native American tribe. For several minutes, arrows fly and the natives and trappers fall to their demise. The camera pans through the camp-turned-battleground showing melee fights and aftermath. What starts as an engaging assault, soon grows tiring as the death toll rises. Lubezki puts to the test his wandering long takes that he is now famous for, but instead of heightening the suspense, the camera meanders and the technique is exploited for exhibition rather than effect. Ultimately, a fraction of the fur trappers are able to make it back to their boat alive, but amongst them are Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-native son, Hawk.
It becomes apparent soon after that the introductory set piece is the high point of the two-and-a-half-hour picture, as screenwriters Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu’s dialogue proves heavy-handed and flat. Iñárritu incomprehensibly weaves flashbacks of Glass’ past with Hawk and his Native American mother. Stylistically, the director delves into a sort of surreal presentation of Hawk’s deceased mother with faux Malick-esque imagery that is presented too seriously for its blatant bastardization of a better vision.
Meanwhile, the battered trappers, led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), find a temporary place to set up camp before returning with the furs they accrued. While camp is being made, Glass stumbles upon a mother grizzly bear who mauls him and leaves him maimed and barely alive. As tense and gripping as one instance of bear mauling is, Iñárritu’s affinity for inflicting pain on his characters brings the bear lunging back twice more. This scene of obnoxious repetition and cruelty is perhaps the only scene Iñárritu brought to The Revenant — no one else could’ve directed the mauling in such a vulgar and over-the-top way. Once again the camera needlessly whips around to capture the raw suffering of the attack, never breaking away, and further fetishizing the savage assault.
Despite three attacks and all odds, Glass manages to kill the bear but is left in severe condition. Captain Henry leaves Hawk, Jim Bridger (played by Will Poulter, the surprise all-star of the cast) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to tend to Hugh until he dies, and to give him a proper burial, for a reward. Fitzgerald’s plan to murder the incapacitated Glass is interrupted as Hawk attempts to save his father, but ends up taking the fall for him instead. Glass watches as his son is slain, and he vows to take revenge on Fitzgerald.
But Glass’ retribution can’t ensue until Leonardo DiCaprio grunts, spits and crawls his way to an Oscar in an exaggerated performance, even for his standards. DiCaprio’s Glass is as one-note as the film. His physical pain is overly manifested whereas his emotional suffering is underdeveloped, making the quest for revenge seem undeserved.
However, DiCaprio’s mostly mute Glass isn’t nearly as distracting as Hardy’s caricature of evilness, Fitzgerald. Hardy’s aptness to the inhuman is brought to new heights with his character. Between a strong accent, mumbling, and unblinking eyes, Hardy seems as if he is in a movie with a much lighter tone. Sadly, Fitzgerald’s quirks don’t add levity, something The Revenant desperately lacks in general. They just make him seem as if he is a stage villain being performed by an amateur actor not accustomed to the nuances of film.
It isn’t just the performances that are one-note; The Revenant is thematically bankrupt despite Iñárritu clumsily grasping for meaning with empty shots of trees, the sky, and floating figures. Spiritualism is occasionally shown through Glass’ journey, especially when recollecting his rendezvous with his child’s Native American mother. This spiritualism is never fully developed but is simply a tool for Iñárritu to use to explain Glass’ motives and make them relatable. The film is far too reliant on its religious aspects to connect with individuals; if they don’t click, the film lacks any depth or any exceptional reason to watch. Unfortunately, most will find that the spiritual connections are mismanaged, hokey and unoriginal.
Despite its simple narrative and vapidness, Lubezki and Iñárritu still present The Revenant with a delusional amount of grandeur. Aside from three intimate moments (the opening set piece, the bear attack and the final battle), the rest of the quest for revenge is shot at a distance. The distance isn’t a physical, measurable distance, but an emotional one that alienates the audience. Instead of immersing into the drama, the viewer is just expected to observe and care about Glass’ fight for survival. This isolating effect works when dealing with The Tree of Life due to it being meditative and poetic while covering a near infinite scope. But The Revenant is too lifeless and doesn’t have enough philosophy to distance itself from the audience in such a way. The end result is boring, technical showboating that won’t stand the test of time.