‘The Revenant’ was a film I was looking forward to ever since seeing the trailer sometime last year. Not only did it evoke a Cormac McCarthy-esque atmosphere, but the director is Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who directed the rather brilliant ‘Birdman.’ That film alone made me excited for Iñárritu’s future projects (and made me curious about his previous films!). ‘The Revenant,’ however, is a gruelling, endurance test of a film. The cast and crew may have been through hell to make this film, but I’m not sure if their commendable effort was worth it. Extreme hardship is woven into every shot and scene, right from the beginning. It opens with long takes of a battle between a group of Americans including Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Native Americans. It’s brutal, bloody and starkly shot. There’s no glorification of violence. We witness the unrelenting, horrific nature of violence. Watching it, you can’t help but admire the difficulties in constructing the long, unbroken takes of arrows hitting trees and people, guns firing, and people being maimed. However, like the rest of the film, it’s an admiration that keeps you distanced from the film. Whilst trying to create a mind-blowing, beautiful and award-winning film, Iñárritu forgot about creating a rapport with the audience.
“Best thing to do would be to kill the bastard”
‘The Revenant’ is teeming with beauty, even in its many scenes of gore and violence. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has done perhaps his best work yet (above and beyond that done in ‘Birdman’ and ‘Gravity’), making sure every second oozes purity and perfection. Each snow-covered location is captured with a quality that is rarely seen on film. If the picturesque quality of the film was anything to go by, then ‘The Revenant’ would be an outstanding film.
In my view, it isn’t an outstanding film. For much of its 156 minute duration, it meanders and dawdles. After the opening battle scene, time slowly ticks away until the inevitable bear-mauling of DiCaprio. Nothing substantial happens and the dialogue fails to keep the viewer hooked. That’s especially true after DiCaprio is mauled by the suspiciously CG-looking bear, which jars with everything we’ve seen beforehand. DiCaprio grunts, claws, and eats raw liver on his journey to revenge, as he scrapes and flails for the ever-elusive Oscar. Maybe the intention was for the audience to become as weak and emaciated as Hugh Glass, to engender sympathy for him. But it doesn’t work.
“I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I’ve done it already”
Glass follows the path of revenge after witnessing John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy) murder his son in cold blood. Fitzgerald is easily the best actor on the screen, exuding a villainy more cold and calculating that Hardy’s turn as Bane. Like Bane, he’s hard to understand, but his actions definitely speak louder than words. We should feel invested in Glass’ thirst to avenge his son. He rises from the almost-dead, dragging himself along snow-covered paths, hiding from Native Americans, eats bone marrow and hides naked inside a dead Tauntaun (sorry, I meant horse) to find Fitzgerald. But the journey rarely involves the audience on an emotional level. For me, it was the same failure in ‘Inception’: DiCaprio’s desire to find his children never translated to an emotional investment for the audience.
It’s also the film’s biggest failure. We can appreciate the technical mastery of the scene composition, the harsh conditions the cast and crew endured (especially DiCaprio), but the themes of revenge and rebirth never fully resonate with the audience. Glass’ visions are supposed to involve us more in his inner drama and conflict, but in reality they come across as stunning dreams without meaning. Interpreting the film becomes as impenetrable as the conditions the cast and crew faced. One can applaud the accomplishments of Iñárritu, DiCaprio et al, but it would be an empty applause without conviction. They’ve created an endurance test that fails to reap any rewards. “Pain is temporary, but a film is forever,” Iñárritu has said. ‘The Revevant’ may exist forever, but time will not look kindly on it.
VERDICT: 6/10: Absolutely gorgeous to look at, and the blood, sweat and grime convinces you that the film was a hellacious experience for all involved, but it’s an empty experience. Everybody tried incredibly hard, but along the way they forgot to involve the audience emotionally. An impressive disappointment.