The Revenant and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Huh. When you think about it, Iñárritu is kind of doing the same thing here that he did with Birdman. Take an actor who’s known for something specific, and really dig into that a subtext of the movie. For Birdman, it was about Michael Keaton trying to stay relevant as a genuine artist yet really only being known for his (in a certain perspective) more shallow performances. Here, it’s almost like a metaphor for Leonardo DiCaprio’s continued struggle to win that fucking Oscar, taking on challenging role after challenging role yet never getting quite what he deserves. That really does fit into this story about braving the elements in a quest for revenge that we can all pretty much assume doesn’t give him the satisfaction and validation that his character is so desperately seeking. Still, does the movie itself manage to be entertaining in the same way Birdman was while still giving us some really interesting nuances to the story? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his struggles to get back to civilization after being left for dead by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who also killed his son Hawk Glass (Forrest Goodluck). During a hunting expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) the party was raided by a contingent of Native American Warriors and only a couple of them (including Hugh, John, Hawk, and Andrew) make it out alive. Because Hugh is the guy with the tragic backstory involving his Native American wife, he’s easily the best tracker in the group and so knows how to avoid the tribe while also finding the safest route through the mountains, though John doesn’t really trust him or his son due to almost getting scalped by Native Americans a while ago. Unfortunately for the party, Hugh gets the shit kicked out of him by a Grizzly Bear and is nearly dead after the encounter. The party tries to carry him along, but the strain becomes too great and he’s left with a couple men (Hawk, John, and one other dude Bridger played by Will Poulter) so that he can… die peacefully? I don’t know, but things don’t go as planned as the already suspicious John decides to kill off Hugh and ends up killing Hawk in the process… yet doesn’t feel the need to finish off Hugh I guess. Anyway, John convinces Bridger to leave and so Hugh is left for dead. That ain’t about to stop Leonardo DiCaprio though, as he crawls out of his shallow grave, and makes his way back to home base to kick Tom Hardy square in the teeth! Can he survive the stark and desolate countryside long enough to get his revenge!? More importantly, can Leo finally win his god damn Oscar!?
I’m surprised at how much this movie just did not do it for me. It has gotten so much praise from so many critics, and yet I’m sitting here trying to figure out what was so gripping about it. I can’t be the only one who found this to ultimately be slog, right? There’s just nothing much to the story or even to the characters to get invested in DiCaprio’s trials and tribulations, despite them using the death of his son to try and get that sense of pathos across. It’s beautiful, well-acted, and edited together competently, and yet I still found it absolutely dull to sit through.
The movie’s fatal flaw is what should have been its greatest strength, and that’s the fact that we’re being subjected to an endurance test; the triumph of the human spirit against all odds. The problem is that that is all this movie is about. It’s one dude constantly getting a beat down from Mother Nature and that just gets tedious after a while. Hell, even though this is clearly a terrible situation to find oneself in, it doesn’t seem to be all THAT crazy for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character considering the time he lives in and his chosen occupation. The dude already has a tragic backstory, and his job is basically to brave Mother Nature anyway (why are they doing this in winter?) so frankly the shit he goes through doesn’t feel all that extreme for someone who lives the life he does. If he doesn’t die THIS expedition doing some dangerous shit and getting screwed over, he’s probably gonna die the NEXT expedition where he has to do some dangerous shit and gets screwed over. For crying out loud, he’s ALREADY one of the lucky ones considering like seventy percent of the expedition part were wiped out by Native Americans just a couple days earlier (I’ll get back to THAT later). If we had gotten just a glimpse of his life prior to this job, something that he was striving for or looked forward too, then maybe this crushing event will have the kind of weight it needed for me to have an investment on its outcome. Oh, but he has a son you say? Well sure, but I didn’t get a real sense of their relationship outside of this job they were on where pleasantries and sentiment were apparently forbidden, so the dialogue between him and Hawk basically boil down to “boy, do this” or “I told you not to do that son!” which just isn’t enough for me to care for them one way or the other. The fact that they’re father and son means there IS some built in pre-packaged affections we can gleam from that relationship alone, but the movie shouldn’t just rely on the fact that we know father’s care about their sons to get us emotionally invested.
On top of that, there aren’t really any peaks or valleys in the levels of intensity, so it all drones along at a pretty monotonous pace. If anyone needs a refresher on the tension/release cycle (it’s clear that the film makers here need one), the tense moments are only tense when they are preceded by moments of calm and levity. If you try to make EVERY moment intense and unyielding, then it all starts to level out and the audience becomes acclimated to it. The movie TRIES to do that with quieter scenes here and there, but they aren’t really all that calming considering DiCaprio is still crawling around the place, and the ultra-intense moments are honestly more hilarious than they are intense, such as the bear attack scene which goes on WAY too long to not be hysterical, and of course when he guts a horse, gets naked, and crawls inside it’s carcass. Now those flaws didn’t ruin the movie for me, it just made it pretty bland and one note. What DID bring the movie down quite a few notches was its portrayal of Native Americans. First of all, I thought Hollywood knew better by now than to make Native Americans one-note antagonists, and yet here they are just carving a path of bloodshed throughout the countryside. Like ANY half-assed villain, they give a weak justification that they are looking for the daughter of one of chief, but that’s just not enough for me to think of them as anything more than cartoonish savages when they’re first response to any situation is to kill and maim anyone within striking distance. The worst part is at the very end, which I won’t spoil, but what they do there takes it from a band of warriors on a brutal mission to absolutely psychotic. With all the other scenes of them, you can sort of buy their actions. They are on a warpath, so they have to take out any threats and the groups they run into have guns. Fine. The final time we see them though, they kill a helpless and gravely injured man for no reason. Seriously, there is ZERO context, justification, or rational behind this. They just see a person in grave peril and decide to kill them. This is fucking PSYCHOTIC behavior, and since the Native Americans are so un-defined up to this point, having this be the note we end their story on is damn near despicable. I’m REALLY god damn close to saying that Ridiculous Six does a better job of portraying Native Americans than this movie does. Oh, and we can’t forget that this scene can be contrasted with an earlier scene where a white guy finds a lone Native American woman after her village has been slaughtered and decides to help her instead. Good ol’ white people, am I right? THEY get to show some compassion while the Native Americans are either victims or monsters. WHO THE FUCK WROTE THIS SHIT!?!?
Despite all the bad and mediocre things I’ve said about this movie, you can’t its technical chops, beautiful cinematography, and solid acting. I’m kinda hoping that DiCaprio continues to be denied his Oscar just to see how much farther the dude is willing to go to try and get one because he goes the fucking distance here. I don’t know how much of this was done in post or using trick photography, but the amount of beatings he takes, raw animal flesh he eats, miles he crawls, and goofy ass faces he makes is right up there with the lengths Christian Bale has been known to go for his roles (only he ended up getting an Oscar).
Still, it’s not his performance that stands out the most for me. Sure, he does great with the material, but stoicism is pretty much the only note and like everything else this movie throws at you, it gets a bit old after a while. The REAL star here is Tom Hardy as the angry bastard who leaves DiCaprio for dead and kills his son. There’s a certain sense of logic to what he does considering that the party has already been brutally cut down by a tribe of Native Americans who are hot on their trail and that just standing around here caring for and dragging this mangled bastard up a mountain is very much a losing proposition. Hell, if they had cut out the part about him killing off DiCaprio’s son (which was NOT part of the true story before you nay-sayers start to nay-say), this could have been an interesting sort of horror flick. Where the guy who’s admittedly selfish and angry does something that SEEMS to be the smart thing to do and then gets one HELL of a punishment as he’s being hunted down by a supposed dead man. THAT might have been interesting to see play out from his perspective (which we do get to see glimpses of throughout this movie) instead of seeing DiCaprio’s slow(ish) recovery and long trek.
You know who was the REAL villain of this damn movie? Captain Andrew Henry who is the most wishy-washy and dull witted leader since that one time Homer Simpson was in charge of a nuclear submarine. DiCaprio is in HORRID shape after the bear attack, but I understand why he wants to keep him alive. He’s the one who got them out of trouble and the guy’s son is still there. What I DON’T understand is that when he finally makes the decision to kill the fucker, he instead recants and asks if anyone wants to sit next to him so he can die SLOWLY while the rest of the already tiny party goes on. WHAT!? They’re trying to outrun the Native American’s who are chasing them and have already lost some time due to having to carry DiCaprio around, but instead of choosing between killing him and taking him along, he decides to do a half measure which will ENSURE the party staying behind gets killed by Native Americans and will HALF the chances of the party going on to actually get back to home base. What a fucking genius!! Oh, and on top of that, even I could have told him that letting fucking Tom Hardy who’s been nothing but a giant prick to DiCaprio and his son to stay behind and ENSURE the guy dies naturally (in screaming writhing pain as opposed to quick bullet to the head) is a terrible fucking idea.
Oh right, we were talking about good stuff. Iñárritu is still using a lot of those camera tricks he used for Birdman (though not as aggressively gimmicky which wasn’t a BAD thing in Birdman) which gives everything a really intense and personal feel to all the action on screen. When the story itself and the characters weren’t doing it for me, the camerawork and choreography were impressive enough to keep me at least somewhat interested. The landscapes as well are beautifully realized and do a great job of showing the vastness and intricacy of the wilderness which goes a long way to establishing just how unbelievable (in a good way) this guy’s miraculous return to civilization actually was. There’s also one scene in this movie that I think PERFECTLY captures what this movie was going for but ultimately missed throughout the rest of the movie. The final confrontation between DiCaprio and Hardy is brilliant. It’s rough, dirty, intense and a great bookend for the story, but is also overlong, unpleasant, and unsatisfying which is EXACTLY how it should have been. It’s perfectly fine to have cathartic revenge fantasies in the fiction and media we consume, but this is an amazing example of how that’s not really the case when you try to apply it to the real world. The act itself isn’t clean and easy, it’s an arduous mess with blood everywhere and confusion throughout. Once DiCaprio gets what he wants though, the world doesn’t magically get better and he doesn’t get his son back. Everything is exactly the same as it was before. Despite the inclusion of that psychotic moment from the Native Americans I mentioned earlier, it’s a fantastic note to end the movie on. If only the prior two and a half hours wasn’t so drawn out.
So what can we learn from all this? I don’t fucking know, because I’m pretty much in the minority here. I didn’t get what I needed from the movie in terms of character, pacing, and stakes, but plenty of other people out there did so maybe I’m completely off base here. Are the visuals and cinematography enough to save the movie? Well they are quite impressive throughout, but without a good reason to be looking at them, you might as well be looking at pretty desktop wallpapers. The parts of the movie that focus on the pitfalls of revenge are pretty engaging, but they are too few and far between and the majority of the movie is just watching DiCaprio light fires, rest for a minute or two, eat raw meat, and have weird pointless flashbacks. I guess I would recommend seeing it simply because of how great the visuals are on the big screen, but I was left pretty cold by the end of it. Oh hey! That’s a pun!
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