Words by Patrick Dunham
From the exhilarating intro sequence featuring a skirmish between trappers and stormin’-and-lootin’ American Indian horsemen, The Revenant brings you into its wild maw and holds you there for the entire snowlogged duration. Groundbreaking performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, along with virtuosic cinematography, will please most. But really, what this prestige picture lacks is depth.
A lot of the hullaballoo for The Revenant had to do with its production. From what I’ve read, Iñárritu might as well be a dictator who led his subjects to the deep Canadian wilderness to have them suffer for his unrelenting artistic vision. It would be unfair to not credit the achievement this film has earned in terms of backwoods, stunning cinematography. That’s all well and good, and this film will continue to be one of the strongest contenders during awards season, especially considering the numerous anecdotes about how DiCaprio pushed himself to his limits and then went so much further.
Eating a bison liver and raw fish. Plunging into near-arctic waters. Crawling into the carcass of a horse: all of DiCaprio’s acts of extremity might just pay off and earn him an Oscar, but it is what it is. Politics will lead the Oscars as they always have; so while all of DiCaprio’s brutal work might not earn him the prestigious accolade, the performance will last as one of the most tremendous of his career. The sociopathic, Indian-killing antagonist known as Fitzgerald fits Hardy, considering his penchant for playing crazed dissidents. Fitzgerald’s desperate and immoral strides toward survival, rife with betrayal and selfishness, contrast Glass’ purity of intention and singular endurance against all the challenges wilderness and mankind present along his way.
The film centers on three interwoven narrative arcs: Hugh Glass’ sixteen-mile trek through Sioux and Arikara territory, an Arikara chief on the search for his shanghaied daughter, and Fitzgerald’s (with beguiled trapper-boy Bridger played by a wily eyed Will Poulter) journey back to the fort. The bulk of the narrative tracks Glass’ preposterous survival after having nearly his entire body eviscerated by a mama Grizzly. His understandably sluggish jaunt back is aided by an equally renegade Pawnee man, driven to scavenging a buffalo carcass from dogs whilst searching for his tribe. Glass, knowing his language by way of having a former Pawnee wife as well as son, helps garnering sympathy and assistance, but it is unfortunately short-lived due to colonial interference via a party of French trappers.
Now, The Revenant is beautiful. You will be mesmerized throughout, wondering how it is possible to shoot such an aesthetically immaculate film in merciless, subzero conditions. You will forget about your life for nearly three hours and be engrossed in a tried-and-true tale of revenge and classic American (and French) imperialism. But that is all. There will be no deep ruminations on existence or religion, as the film feebly prompts you to have. Instead you will understand the extent to which deep backwoods Canada is not the coziest of idylls. At the very least the film prompted me to want to learn about the trappers of the 19th century and their assorted expeditions in the uncharted badlands of North Dakota and Montana. That is likely my only takeaway from the film; it will no doubt escape my thoughts in a few days.
The Revenant’s production was one of hellish duration – but why should viewers care? Artists suffer for their work, and it certainly brings it into perspective when it’s not just one envisioned soul, but rather a whole crew of actors and those behind the camera. Yet a film’s commentary about itself shouldn’t be the focal point, and this film is already infamous for the stories proving its status as being a colossally difficult production.
The Revenant depicts wild trappers imbued with Manifest Destiny and a sense of superior righteousness that completely adheres to traditional masculinity and hierarchies of power and subordination. None of this is new, and instead of creating a commentary in which the roots of this inhumanity amongst fellow men is spawned, Iñárritu adds exactly nothing to the table. In considering his prior work, Birdman, with this masculinized revenge tale, both are utterly ambitious and deserving of praise, although the former swings deeper and leaves resonating questions in the vein of Synecdoche, New York.
Having already raked in Golden Globes in the Best Drama, Best Director, and Best Actor categories, The Revenant shines as a gorgeous film of survival and imperialism. Sadly, the buck stops there. That’s not to say it’s not worth a watch, but don’t go in with expectations beyond mere escapism. By the time the film’s conclusion comes to the curtain-drop of the credit roll, you will be in awe of humanity’s ability for camerawork and performance, but ultimately not for humanity itself.