People love a big transformation as much as they love behind-the-scenes drama. The publicity machine for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, which has a strong claim to both, has been banging that drum nonstop, touting its grueling shoot and Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of stranded, half-dead mountain man Hugh Glass as badges of honor to a frankly distracting degree. The boasting is most egregious because The Revenant doesn’t need it. The award-winning partnership of Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with the support of a star-studded cast, is loaded with potential, and relying on that would’ve saved the production team the embarrassment of tone-deaf comparisons between Leo’s acting travails and the real-life Glass’s harrowing ordeal. It’s not shocking enough that DiCaprio eats raw bison liver. No, it’s shocking because in reality he’s a vegetarian. Had the crew paused to watch ¡Three Amigos!, they might know what men like Glass would have to say about that.
All harping aside, this superstar collaboration scores another victory for Iñárritu and Lubezki on the heels of last year’s daffy, insightful Birdman. Hailed as a masterpiece by some, The Revenant is not without its flaws, mostly to do with its struggle to streamline its narrative over a long run time, but it lives up to its pedigree, being far and away one of the most stylistically daring, well acted, and unrelentingly brutal prestige pics in recent memory. Call it the Iñárritu effect, as he brings his swooping cameras, unequaled spacial awareness, and a commitment to natural lighting and texture to the great outdoors, following the journey across the 1820’s American West by tracker Hugh Glass, who’s left for dead by members of his fur trapping expedition after being mauled by a bear.
Glass’s expedition is already in dire straits before the fateful mauling. After being decimated by an Arikari war party, the remaining men stash the what’s left of their hides to sneak their way back to safety in South Dakota. Along the way Glass accidentally steps between a mama bear and her cubs, and following an unflinchingly filmed attack, a Pyrrhic victory is rewarded to Glass, who’s patched up and lugged around for as long as possible by his compatriots. When the weather and terrain make it impossible to continue, Domhnall Gleeson’s sympathetic commander asks for volunteers to stick it out with Glass until the end. The motley trio of Glass’s Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a green Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and wily bully John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) stay.
Making things more convenient for Glass’s survival arc, Fitzgerald murders the helpless Glass’s son right before his eyes before running off with a bamboozled, shame-ridden Bridger in tow. Motivation to stay alive complete. Revenge holds the irony of being the grandest and shallowest of motivations in all of cinema, and while Iñárritu could’ve laid back and made do with a movie driven entirely by Glass’s seething desire for retribution, he and co-writer Mark. L Smith ensure that Glass wrestles with deeper conflicts sparked by his brush with death, many of which are explicated in terrible visions that bring the dead back to life and predict the decline of the West between Glass’s desperate crawl back to safety.
“I don’t have a life, I only have livin’,” Fitzgerald bitches early on, devaluing his own existence and stripping away meaning altogether to justify his taking any risk just to keep living. He’s not working up to anything; he just wants to push back when he gets pushed. It’s an explicit declaration of Iñárritu’s breathing motif that keeps Glass going, a reminder signaled by cold breath filling the screen and Glass’s breathing filling the soundtrack. Frequently used static shots of tree lines also call to Glass’s mind a parable about survival at all costs, and so Iñárritu finds in Glass an even baser impulse than revenge to keep living, and one that makes a more profound connection to the world he inhabits.
In the context of the West, Iñárritu’s swooping camera is a like woodland fairy, flitting curiously around the men’s heads, finding no fixed perspective from which to judge their actions. Meanwhile, the majority of Lubezki’s wide shots of the frontier landscape are still, soaking up the grandeur of single moments in time as people trudge from one danger to another. Most awe-inspiring are the shots that are able to combine the men and the majesty of nature, as when the party tries to cross a waterfall roaring through the ice, or Glass, intent in his pursuit, pauses to watch an avalanche roaring in the distance. Like with revenge, it’s nothing new for a film to comment on the overall insignificance of humanity, but the men aren’t shown to be intruders any more than they are fellow participants in the struggle against time.
DiCaprio is naturally excellent throughout, and while he carries the film with quiet resilience, not enough credit can be bestowed upon Hardy and Poulter for filling in the gaps. Hardy is at his most bug-eyed and marble-mouthed as Fitzgerald, who’s shown to be the worst kind of bastard there is, a living personification of the id who’s quick to assign blame and complain about his share after three quarters of their expedition has been massacred. Poulter plays Bridger the way you’d want to imagine the famous mountain man in his youth, hardworking, idealistic, and remarkably immune to the older trappers’derision. He’s still a bit stuck in career adolescence, but this role lets him play his severe browline against the last vestiges of baby fat, and should open him up for greater opportunities to come. For that matter, Gleeson does well in what appears to be a deliberate campaign to miscast himself at any cost, acting out over his inherent sweetness in both this and Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens to create characters who you can’t quite tell are ineffectual or not.
A broken rhythm is the biggest thing working against The Revenant, which is fifteen to twenty minutes too long. Try as he might to transcend the traditional revenge narrative, Iñárritu finds himself dragged back into plot-building mode at weird intervals, rushing through scenes to let us know each party’s progress on their journeys. And for each setback encountered by Glass, which usually involves some other grave injury, the movie grinds to a halt, all the more to heighten his sense of hopelessness, yet all the more to test our patience too. It comes to the point that you suspect Iñárritu feels the same way. After so many incapacitating injuries, Glass eventually is just able to brush himself off and walk away from what should’ve been broken ribs and lacerations galore.
Pacing issues offer no real reason to dislike The Revenant, though. It’s good luck that this material was found and embraced by such a stellar production team, and that Iñárritu and Lubezki took such drastic pains to realize their cold, stark, almost constantly twilit vision. For the amount of braggadocio accompanying its release and awards season race, the parts that made it to the screen are worth it, and speak to its makers’ tireless dedication. Iñárritu maintains his spot on the vanguard of cinematic innovation, and while it’d be too generous to say he’s revivified cinema with The Revenant, he has at the very least given it the gift of a long life to come.