The Revenant

TheRevenantPosterGeorge Miller made a movie this year that is little but a chase scene, with themes of survival, revenge and a showcase for hyper violence and cinematic spectacle. The film has virtually no story, but the nature of its editing and its use of color, movement and staging made it an exhilarating experience, brutal and devastating but also cathartic and purely entertaining.

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant” is a similar revenge fantasy, stripped to its bones in all its animalistic nature and fury, but Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography blunts the impact. The Malick-esque way that Lubezki plays with the elements to create something spectral and naturalistic give “The Revenant” an overstated sense of importance, and watching it is hardly entertaining but dreary, disgusting and devoid of purpose.

Set in early frontier America, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a navigator part of a hunting party gathering pelts. Natives ambush the entire squadron and reduce the team from 45 people to just 10. The scene is ravishing, but immediately numbing. Arrows fly in and impale the Americans from beyond the frame, creating a sense early on that danger is not imminent but seemingly omnipresent. The mise-en-scene is cold and silvery and makes a stark backdrop for fiery streaks of arrows flying through the sky.

Lubezki has the camera dive underneath the water to witness one man being strangled to death, and we realize that despite the camera’s pivots and surveying, it’s more of a godly spectator rather than a human eye. The camera here is far less a gimmick than in Inarritu’s “Birdman,” and the way the camera is freed from a fixed axis is not unlike how Lubezki’s cinematography floated and tumbled in “Gravity.” But seeing it in this way isn’t visceral but bleak, violent, bloody and full of agony.

Glass escapes the natives only to be attacked by a bear. This scene too is an endless, torturous and dispassionate sight done in a single, unbroken shot. The bear claws and stomps on his back and whips him like a doll. It exists seemingly out of time and even ends on something of a grim punch line, a final knife in the back as Glass tumbles down a hill only for the slain bear to roll on top of him.

Miraculously, Glass survives, but just barely. Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) demands the remaining troop care for him and keep him alive as long as possible. When they’re unable to transport the wounded Glass further, Henry assigns John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to tend to Glass and Glass’s half-breed son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) until Glass dies. Instead, Fitzgerald kills Hawk and leaves Glass for dead. “The Revenant” starts as Glass’s fight for survival against nature, a cold look at how the world is vengeful and how the wilderness governs all. But it eventually morphs into a more simplistic revenge fantasy, Glass’s quest to return from the dead and kill the man who murdered his son.

We see flashes of Glass’s past, of his native bride being slaughtered and skulls being stacked high in a mountain. Except Glass’s remaining existence is no less bleak, and his past plays as a morbid form of adding insult to injury. He survives by eating hunks of bloody, raw buffalo meat and by cutting open the guts of a horse and crawling inside its open cavity for warmth. The film’s gore is disturbing, but the subject matter itself is not the problem. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was no less shocking, and even “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” involves Luke killing an animal for warmth on the ice planet Hoth.

The difference is how Inarritu lingers on the gruesomeness and screams each shot’s importance, not for their ingenuity but their stark reality. The score pounds with thundering drums that signal each moment’s weight, and the way “The Revenant” evokes God as a theme continually burdens us with the idea that this is Glass against the world.

DiCaprio is a victim of the film’s agony, grunting and moaning his way through the entire film and crawling on the cold ground for much of it. There’s only so much of an actual performance here. Tom Hardy is more effective as the dissenting and ruthless Fitzgerald, complete with a thick, broken Americana accent and wide eyes that show his madness.

While Lubezki remains the more interesting entry point to “The Revenant,” the blame for the movie’s depressing and exhausting slog rests on Inarritu’s shoulders. Like how the film treats Glass, he does all he can to drag us through hell but little catharsis or solace to bring us back.

1 ½ stars

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  1. probably 95 percent in agreement with you, brian, except i wish that it weren’t so * i mean, inarritu’s BIRDMAN was my favorite “american” movie of 2014, even though i hated the trailers for it (all rapid-fire montage for a film aspiring to single-take continuity, or at least the illusion thereof: really off-putting, i almost decided not to go …), just as i did the ones for this film * only this time the trailers got it right …

    one bone to pick though: why “an overstated sense of importance”? * admittedly it’s hard, for me anyway, to put a finger on what’s going wrong here * but the cinematography? the music?: one might equally object to max steiner’s musical “argument” in ford’s STAGECOACH, which shouts monumentality and triumph (and in monument valley no less!) when what the camera gives you is an unglamorous, rickety conveyance slogging its way haphazardly across a rutted landscape–turn the music off and you have a different film * (which is part of my “personal” vendetta against movie music in general–perhaps some other time on this …) * granted, inarritu isn’t malick, but why isn’t he? * in one reviewer’s opinion, malick’s work (with the same cinematographer) is “sublime” whereas inarritu’s isn’t * but what makes for “sublimity”?–i agree (“intuitively”? as a “gut” reaction?) that the movie doesn’t have it, but what’s literally the “it” that it doesn’t have? * or is it an objection to the unrelentingness, the single-mindedness of the thing? * yet other films are equally unrelenting and single-minded and we call them “classics” * one reason i’m belaboring the point is that la spouse (whom obviously you know) thought THE REVENANT one of the best movies she’d ever seen * and here i was looking for a different sort of confirmation! … except it seems to be a very common split vis-a-vis, critically and personally * so: can we “predict” which cinema viewers will like THE REVENANT and which ones won’t? * on what basis?–and do these differences of opinion continue through other areas of life, in equally predictable ways? * e.g., because i like, say, mondrian, will i necessarily hate what THE REVENANT does?–except on the other hand i loved the same director’s BIRDMAN … and yet, i “believe” (ho-ho, take it for what it’s worth) in auteurism! * ah, sweet mysteries …

    but congratulations on not succumbing to the PR blitzes–i just wish i could explain, or explain “better,” why i don’t want to either

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    • Putting my finger on exactly what the “it” is and why I feel it has an overstated sense of importance is a tough one, and I thought I tried to convey it in my review, but it’s really challenging to do that and I’ll have to work on that. I would say though the way Inarritu does it in this film is without a hint of irony and a blunt force that we feel both in the score and in the performances and how unflinching it is that when we have to endure some of the stuff that goes on here, it’s Inarritu rubbing the gravity of this in your face. It doesn’t have to do specifically with Lubezki and his work on Malick’s films of invoking spirituality and godliness on the part of the camera, but it’s in how Inarritu utilizes this incredible gift he has in Lubezki. Because The Revenant is incredible to look at, and so is Birdman for that matter, which I like quite a bit. But this one is dreary AND indulgent I feel.

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  2. looking over your review again, i see that you DID do what you said you tried to * but as you also say here, it’s hard–in fact, very VERY hard …

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