The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)
The Revenant, based on Michael Punke’s true-life novel of the same name, is the latest film of human torment from (now, Oscar-winning) director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Ever since his marvelous turn-of-the-millennium feature debut, Amores Perros, González Iñárritu has specialized in visually stark and emotionally baroque epics of pain and suffering, some of which achieve – or nearly achieve – their lofty ambitions of grandeur, while others seem to enjoy their misery a little too much to tell a meaningful story beyond the presentation of despair. Among the former successes, I would place his first film, as well as Babel (flawed as it is) and Birdman; among the latter failures – none of which are without interest, however – I would place 21 Grams, Biutiful and now The Revenant. As if to emphasize his obsession with trauma above all other concerns, the director has spent a lot of time, pre-release, discussing the difficulties of the actual shoot, made even more arduous by his decision to shoot most of the film in natural light. There’s nothing wrong with such a commitment to verisimilitude and artistic integrity. The question, however, is whether or not the trials and tribulations depicted on screen amount to the kind of transcendent spiritual movie-going experience sought by González Iñárritu, or whether it’s all just blood and guts, a more serious version of the other winter Western out in theaters right now, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
It’s a beautiful film to behold, though very bleak, shot by (also, Oscar-winning, twice) cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman). The Revenant is set in 1823 and tells the story of mountain man Hugh Glass – played by Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) in an Oscar-buzzy performance – as he is left for dead by his party of fellow fur trappers after a near-lethal bear attack, only to make his way back (hence his status as a “revenant“) and exact revenge on the one of them who did him a particular wrong. Along the way he encounters a variety of obstacles, including his persistent injury, hostile Arikara natives and rival French trappers, not to mention the vast expanse of harsh and indifferent nature, at its most dangerous in the coldest months of the year. We watch him time and time again escape certain death, and after a while begin to wonder less at his supernatural powers of survival than at the director’s insistence on prolonging his (and our) torture. How many times must this man (almost) die? And to what purpose?
Still, there are many breathtaking sequences, including an opening attack by the aforementioned Arikara that is filmed as one long single take (shades of Birdman?). The savage bear mauling is a masterful combination of CGI and real-world elements. And on and on. DiCaprio, to be fair, is quite good, and if he does (finally) win his Oscar, you won’t hear me complain. He is well supported, too, with the likes of Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), Domhnall Gleeson (Brooklyn, fast outgrowing his position as my least favorite actor with a series of fine supporting roles like this one) and Will Poulter (The Maze Runner), in what may be the best performance of the film as a young boy racked with guilt over leaving Glass behind. I didn’t really buy the pseudo-mystical dream sequences and flashbacks where Glass recalls his past life among the Pawnee, as they felt like a weak attempt by González Iñárritu to inject spiritual qualities into his viscerally violent narrative, but they are, like the rest of the film, stunningly shot. And there you have the film in a nutshell: a series of extraordinary set pieces, aided by strong actors, that ultimately amounts to … a series of set pieces, imperfectly strung together without the weight of meaning the director intends them to have. You can hit us over the head as much as you want, but that pain we feel is not enlightenment; it’s just pain.