Film Review: THE REVENANT (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu)

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by Jason Rohrer on December 4, 2015

in Film


Frontiersman Hugh Glass was attacked by a bear in 1823, deep in the Dakota Territory. Given his broken leg and exposed ribs, Glass’s friends didn’t think he’d make it. Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald took his rifle and left him for dead, spooked that scalp-hunting Arikara warriors were on their trail. Glass’s solo 200-mile odyssey to Fort Kiowa took six weeks, during which he mostly crawled and floated on a raft, eating roots and berries.


That didn’t sound cinematic enough to Richard Sarafian, whose 1971 film Man in the Wilderness changed Glass to Bass and for good measure threw in John Huston steering a large boat through the woods on wagon wheels. As Bass, Richard Harris crawls for awhile but soon begins to hunt for food, eventually hobbling along pretty well for a guy with a broken leg. A man hobbling is, it turns out, not inherently more watchable than a man crawling. The boat on wheels, while bizarre and unlikely, is something to see.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new movie The Revenant gives Leonardo DiCaprio’s Glass almost every possible mode of transport: he walks, he swims, he rides, he runs, he falls off a cliff. Alas, the movie only crawls. Based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, the screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu cooks up a sentimental wife-and-child element for dramatic effect. It is no more successful here than when Sarafian and Jack DeWitt invented similar backstories for the 1971 version.


Iñárritu has recently gravitated away from the multiple-story pileups that consistently dissipated the good in Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. But 2014’s Birdman, while focused on a single narrative, made as much sense as a bag of concepts dropped off a skyscraper. And The Revenant, for all its ponderous two-and-a-half-hours, ends up being not much more than a trail of bloody snowballs.

Photographed with cold richness by Emmanuel Lubezki, still this is an Iñárritu movie, so in the action scenes the camera is always moving and always in the wrong place. Alternately, for much of this picture Iñárritu seems to think he’s channeling Andrei Tarkovsky, but static shots of nature have rarely felt as empty as these. It’s also frequently difficult for the viewer to orient himself in this environment; the passage of time and spatial relationships are both unclear, making it hard to care about a story that’s not too engaging to begin with.


At bottom, this film is too dumb to act this pretentious. So much is made of DiCaprio’s horrendous wounds – they have to look fatal; that’s the premise – that when he pulls himself out of a shallow grave one-handed, we should be impressed. We would be, if he didn’t (in the same shot!) start using the other hand, too, the one that didn’t work at all a moment ago. Similarly, his broken leg heals apparently within a couple of days – about as long in film-time as it takes for a director to say, “I’m tired of watching him crawl.” Later, after Iñárritu takes pains to establish a band of Arikara as both dogged and family-oriented, the war party engages DiCaprio in a running gunfight. He kills several of their number, but these fiercely loyal and tireless Indians conveniently abandon the chase so that their quarry can take a nap in the last place they saw him.

When DiCaprio guts a horse to crawl inside for some shut-eye, two masters are served: 1) a motif of grisly violence substituting for a sense of time and place, and 2) a constant attention to butching up the lead. An actor who can book just about any job he wants, DiCaprio has spent more than a few movies playing run-and-gun tough guys. It never quite persuades, whatever his real-life attributes; on film, he’s a gangly fellow who looks like he might have trouble changing a tire. This movie puts him up to his elbows in gore and takes away his squeaky voice with a throat wound. He spends the film grunting and wheezing and overcoming physical obstacles, but his climactic mano a mano with Tom Hardy still looks like it would be a very brief contest in any arena but film.


Hardy, as the man DiCaprio pursues for leaving him to die, is the primary feature anchoring this movie to the brutal elements. (In this regard, the film’s overuse of computer-generated wildlife is a total failure. What should be a terrifying Grizzly mauling turns into a three-minute cartoon made from a one-minute loop.) Hardy’s almost enough. He rides a horse, glares, smokes a pipe, like a man very good at looking out for number one. But the script again undercuts the other departments: the closest thing to a three-dimensional character the movie offers, still Hardy’s Fitzgerald is written in black and white. He’s a bad, bad man, diametrically opposed to earnest, blonde Leonardo DiCaprio.

For all his sturm und drang, that’s about as sophisticated as Iñárritu gets. His gestures to moral philosophy are not deep: To show that the movie’s Native Americans are righteously bloodthirsty, we are paraded through the scenes of two Indian massacres by Anglo soldiers, one in flashback and one that some white guys literally walk through without stopping. Does that make up for the convenient Tonto (a Pawnee called Elk Dog, played by Duane Howard) who materializes in the film to selflessly build Leo a sweat lodge, give him a horse and feed him, and who then, once he’s served his cinematic purpose, instantly dies? This pandering is equal parts insult and bore. Minus the $135 million budget, The Revenant is a lot like one of those 60’s and 70’s Clint Eastwood Westerns, where someone tries to hang him and he spends the rest of the movie gunning for revenge and profit.


photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The Revenant
Twentieth Century Fox
Regency Enterprises; New Regency Pictures; Anonymous Content;
M Productions; Appian Way; RatPac-Dune Entertainment
USA | 156 minutes | rated R
in limited release December 25, 2015
in wide release January 8, 2016
for more info, visit Fox

{ 1 comment }

PowerMove January 13, 2016 at 3:50 pm

Thank you for succinctly putting into words my misgivings about this film.

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