Doesn’t quite live up to Iñárritu’s previous effort, Birdman
It’s 1823 and a gang of hunters are searching for pelts in the wilderness of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. The land is made even more treacherous with the presence of the Native American Arikara Indians, who have staged an ambush for the hunters, leaving only ten of the men with no other option but to take a raft deeper into the wilderness.
Amidst the ambush, the team’s most experienced hunter and guider Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) winds up being mauled by a mother grizzly bear in effort to protect her cubs. In the process, he is seriously injured, with his throat slit, his back mangled and bloodied, and his entire body left in a ravaged mess. The gang finds the mangled Glass and is uncertain what to do with him, despite the party’s loudest voice, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), suggesting they simply put Glass out of his misery and move forward. Nonetheless, they do their best to care for him until two young boys, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Glass’s son, offer to stay behind and care for Glass, with Fitzgerald keeping a watchful eye.
When Bridger is gone gathering water, Fitzgerald winds up killing Hawk when he begins to weep for his father, leaving a helpless Glass to witness his boy be murdered right before his eyes. When Bridger finally returns, Fitzgerald claims to be unsure of Hawk’s whereabouts and demands that the two leave quickly, claiming he saw Indians down by the creek, leaving Glass for dead. As the weather worsens, with blizzards and avalanches abound, Glass does his best to maintain his health and his safety as he finds his way back to camp to exact revenge on Fitzgerald for his son’s death.
It was only logical that, after giving us the terrific “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” a year ago, writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu would stun us all again with a film that is sure to grace the Academy Awards with plenty of nominations. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are the best director/cinematographer team of 2015, alongside Quentin Tarantino and Robert Richardson for “The Hateful Eight,” and Denis Villeneueve and Roger Deakins for “Sicario.” With that, Iñárritu and Lubezki (also the cinematographer on “Birdman” and “Gravity”) embellish uncommonly natural locational beauty to contrast with the downright evilness of the characters that inhabit the land.
Iñárritu and Lubezki, similar to the Ultra Panavision 70 route that Tarantino and Richardson opted for with “The Hateful Eight,” capture the lavish land of Alaska with plenty of evocative wide-angle shots that do wonders in showcasing the facial details of the characters in addition to the details of the background. “The Revenant” is as much about the frigid conditions of the brutal wilderness as it is about character redemption, and Iñárritu and Lubezki do a tremendous job of keeping both in mind as the film progresses. These kinds of films really bring forth a meditative light, and I’ll say some moments in the film make you become lost in the scenery and the land itself.
The biggest battle with “The Revenant” isn’t so much the unflinching sequence that shows Glass getting mauled by a grizzly bear, complete with blood-curdling screams, bone-crunching, and every other nasty auditory detail of a mauling, but its length and its simplicity. Coming off of “Birdman,” a film I still regard as pretty under-seen given its accolades and a truly fascinating tale of potential and struggling to live up to your own name, Iñárritu takes a complete one-eighty with this film, being that it’s in a totally different setting and focuses on much clearer character motivations.
Because of that, after seeing him tackle such lofty ideas in “Birdman,” “The Revenant” can’t help but feel slight in comparison, or even on its own. Once you get through the extremely brutal sequences in the beginning of the film, the remainder of the film’s weight rests on the shoulders of DiCaprio, a proven performer who even seems to struggle with the emptiness of his character. While I don’t believe this should be the film to finally earn DiCaprio the Oscar, his performance in the film is much more physical than it was ever meant to be anything else. On that note, he succeeds incredibly, never appearing unbelievable or corny, but yet, there’s not much to view Glass as other than a revenge-seeking man.
And being that this film is one-hundred and fifty-six minutes, just eleven-minutes shy of the theatrical cut of “The Hateful Eight,” a film with far more dialog and character interest, “The Revenant” is sometimes a chore to sit through, despite all it does well for its simple story. Iñárritu and Lubezki’s directorial and cinematographical work needs to be appreciated and praised, and DiCaprio’s performance also needs to find its way to be commended for its physicality (also, don’t sleep on Will Poulter, who shows some real emotional chops playing both conflicted and manipulated), yet that shouldn’t excuse “The Revenant” for its slight nature overall.