The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the master of miserablism himself, is a brutal Western centered around Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trader who, betrayed and left for dead, struggles to survive in the wilderness and seeks vengeance against those who wronged him. If it all sounds very simple that’s because it is. It is also admirably ambitious cinematically – the film is shot using harsh, natural light (befitting of its tone) and its images pack a punch. In terms of sheer technicality The Revenant is a triumph. Its showiness (after all, this is the man who made Birdman, a film edited to give the appearance of being one long, winding take) may repel some viewers, but in my opinion there is no denying Iñárritu’s visual eye. Having Emmanuel Lubezki, who might have earned himself back-to-back-to-back Oscars, as your cinematographer doesn’t hurt either. This is powerful stuff. The Revenant is visual filmmaking at its finest.
Speaking of technicality, DiCaprio is intense and superb. The role of Glass doesn’t call for nuance and character work so much as presence and commitment, of which DiCaprio has in spades. Opposite him is Tom Hardy as the villain, and it’s remarkable watching him strive and strive to flesh out a paper thin character. Herein lies the problem – The Revenant is a soulless movie. It is through its characters that its overwhelming self-regard becomes apparent – this is clearly a director’s movie, and Iñárritu takes 30-minutes of plot and stretches them out into a 150-minute, miserable saga. He is only visually and artistically focused, consistently hammering us visually with themes of nature’s indifference and Malick-esque voiceovers moralizing about revenge.
Iñárritu the director leaves the writer in the dust, and The Revenant suffers for it. Although ostensibly focused on telling the tale of Glass’ “man vs. nature” struggle it glosses over many survival aspects without thinking twice (at one point he falls off of a tall cliff and onto the branches of a tree, with no clear signs of injury). Another sees him effectively recover from a severely broken leg in a mere scene.DiCaprio grounds many of these ridiculous moments, but the relentless misery of the events becomes tedious. Indeed, its miserable tone takes precedent over character. In fact, due to its overwhelming, macho self-seriousness the film often verges on being unintentionally humorous (keep an eye out for a scene in which two characters intensely stare at one another while eating raw bison).
This is a grueling watch, for its graphic content but even moreso for its sluggishness. The first hour, where most of the plot is contained, is excellent (an opening battle scene between the traders and a group of Native Americans is undeniably stunning). Ultimately, though, The Revenant just goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on. This is a beautiful, stunning work of art in which every frame deserves a spot above a mantle, but in the end it rings hollow and empty. The spectacular music score, by a trio of composers, captures a broader, more affecting emotional spectrum than anything else in The Revenant. As the film finally reached its long awaited conclusion I thought to myself, “just get on with it already.” I was so emotionally cold and detached I realized that I didn’t care who killed who (a testament to Iñárritu’s disregard for his characters). I just wanted it to end.