Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest Oscar contender is a gruelling, man-against-the-elements – and mauling grizzlies – gore-fest, a technically astonishing piece of work with quite incredible cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki amid the blood, bile and phlegm. The Revenant also features a deeply committed performance from Oscar contender Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio. Such an adherent to his art is he, he even ingests, and regurgitates, a piece of raw bison liver. What the picture lacks, though, is a profound engagement in his character’s plight, a plight that extends from the visceral to the ridiculous as unfortunate incident after unfortunate incident piles upon him.
Indeed, on several occasions I wondered if I hadn’t wandered in on a slightly soberer, better lensed version of The Naked Gun, one focussing on O.J. Simpson’s hapless officer Nordberg, such is the crescendo of disaster that dogs Our Leo at every turn. Mauled and stamped on by an enormous animatronic bear (twice – how unlucky is that?), Leo’s shit-hot hunter Hugh Glass is left in a state of extreme disrepair and, with the Louisiana Purchase wilds ill-disposed towards his colleagues (he’s their tracker/guide), it’s decided to leave him to his inevitable demise. Glass’ Native American son (Forrest Goodluck), young lad Bridger (Will Poulter) and disreputable mercenary Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) stay behind to see him off and provide a decent burial.
Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, however, Glass just won’t die, dammit, so the former takes it upon himself to curtail his suffering, at which point the son intervenes and Fitzgerald kills him. From whence, Glass is abandoned buried alive, Fitzgerald persuading a reluctant Poulter that the fearsome Arikira Indians are poised to descend upon them. Glass, of course, wants revenge for his dead son, and nothing’s going to stop him!
And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. Not an inability to walk (he’ll just drag himself across the wilderness), not an inability to breathe (he’ll just burn that gaping hole in his throat shut), not what must surely be a fatal case of blood poisoning (constantly sodden, all his wounds are infected in no time at all, as one might expect), not what one would reasonably expect to be the loss of any number of extremities through frostbite, not a series of encounters with the aforementioned scalp-happy Arikira (these include Leo surfing rapids – why not, it’s evidently the way to travel if you can’t walk – riding a horse off a cliff, and then embedding himself in said horse for a cosy night’s sleep, or a homage to The Empire Strikes Back, I’m not sure which). That Glass is a remarkably resilient fellow.
This is a basic, simple story, one with minimal dialogue for much of the proceedings (Glass can’t even speak for much of the time), and as such it’s a showcase for Iñárritu’s filmmaking prowess. Which is undeniably virtuoso, from the incredible brutal opening raid, in which the camera moves to and fro from attacker to attacked, staying with some characters until their sudden deaths, leaving others and returning to them, to Glass’s horrific bear bludgeoning, to his beyond-determined crawl, where you feel every clawed inch and reverberating cough.
But we don’t really have much investment in this character. We’re invested in him because Leo is playing him, not because we care about Glass. His love for his son is told rather than felt, no matter how many rather ham-fisted flashbacks Iñárritu provides (and let’s not forget his rather risible embrace of the metaphysical, with Glass on the brink of death, hearing his dead wife’s voice, even seeing her floating above him in an unintentionally funny moment). Somewhere between this absence and the ludicrousness of Glass’ unfeasible survival, the picture began to lose me. While I was continually re-engaged whenever Iñárritu pulled out the stops with another giddily compelling sequence, I was left with that slightly distasteful feeling one gets from an especially gory horror movie, where the purpose is purely to gross the audience out rather than to relay an overarching idea or theme. Too often in The Revenant, it feels like Iñárritu’s craft is wagging the movie dog.
As the ostensible thematic content goes, though, despite delivering a prodigiously unlikeable character, one can see Fitzgerald’s point of view. Iñárritu has painted a harsh, inhospitable environment, and it would be more of a surprise to pay a second thought to leaving Our Leo to die when death is accustomed to delivering daily greetings cards and you have an entirely reasonable dread of being scalped again. Hardy fully embraces his character’s grungy self-preservation instinct along with a typically curious cadence, and Poulter and Gleeson are equally strong as the innocent and morally earnest leader respectively. As with the technical specs, this isn’t a picture one can fault for performances. Leo may have been more impressive in earlier roles, but one wouldn’t begrudge him what looks like an inevitable Oscar for his hirsute wilderness man.
Still, though, one is left wondering what Iñárritu really wanted to glean from this material, to immerse himself in such a slog of freezing entrails. If the point is an existential one, it’s rather lost in that, rather than finding resonant the pointlessness of Glass’ quest for revenge (which FItzgerald even goes and spells out right at the end; it didn’t need two and a half hours of etching it in the landscape to then have it wrapped in a bow, compounded by its dovetailing with the parallel revenge plot of the Arikira chief rescuing his daughter; it’s so neat, it’s an OCD nightmare), one is left shrugging. Was it worth eating all that bison liver and getting hypothermic? Well, it makes for good dinner party tales and awards acceptance speeches.
And surely, if the idea was to hone Glass’ quest down to its essentials (a bit like a mangled version of Walker in Point Blank), the encumbrances of his wife and son would have been discarded at the script stage (so aligning the film more closely to the account of the real Glass); for all that The Revenant presents an unretconned vision of its Arikara antagonists, you can be quite sure Glass’ family situation comes from exactly that process of nervousness over depiction and content, such that he’s a thoroughly tolerant, modern-thinking man (bar his festering bent for vengeance) and is even helped by Arthur RedCloud’s friendly Pawnee (Kevin Costner would be proud).
I liked Birdman, albeit I don’t think it deserved Best Picture Oscar, but I liked the ensemble and found it frequently very funny. Probably the latter aspect ensured its philosophical pretensions didn’t become a drag (indeed, it seemed quite self-aware in that regard). Here there’s no such insulation. Iñárritu has fashioned an endurance test for audience (it’s loooong) and his actors, and appears to be striving for something affecting and profound, but he’s no Terrence Malick, for whom the relationship between the searching soul and the profundity of the natural world are second nature. On The Revenant’s evidence, Iñárritu doesn’t really have anything he passionately wants to say, so we end up with an amazing piece of filmmaking it’s difficult to care much about.