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If Birdman was a jazzy and alive burden-of-being-an-artist jukebox tune from director Alejandro González Iñárritu then The Revenant is a defiant return to the expansively bleak cinema from which he earned his auteur card. However, in comparison to Babel, Biutiful and 21 Grams, the immense burden of being alive feels far less forced and more appropriate in The Revenant. It does follow an explorer who drags his near-carcass of a body out of a makeshift grave, after all. With bear claw wounds all over his body, the frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks revenge against the man who not only buried his broken body, but also killed his son.
Yeah, bleak shit.
Perhaps because the true-ish story is already full of broken bones and explosive gunpowder body-healing, Iñárritu is surprisingly restrained. There are even moments of levity and spiritual exploration in The Revenant. But what keeps it from ascending is a muddled disconnect in presentation.
Set in 1823, Glass is a fur trader who’s entrusted by General Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) to map the routes for his corps—because he’s the member who’s most familiar with the area’s rivers, woods, and natives. Following an ambush attack from the Ree tribe, who are looking for the chief’s missing daughter, Glass and Henry decide that the best plan of action is to bury their furs and come back for them when they have more men.
The gruff, nearly scalped Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is both jealous of Glass’ role of leading the troupe onward—with a plan that cuts his pay down to damn near nothing (and Fitzgerald has bad debts)—but also uncomfortable with Glass’ “half breed” son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who’s mother was a murdered Pawnee woman. When Glass is nearly mauled to death by a bear, Fitzgerald is further annoyed that Glass fired his rifle, potentially alerting the Ree to their location.
Henry determines that they cannot transport Glass in his condition and offers two men double the pay to stay with him until he either dies or can begin to walk with aide. Fitzgerald volunteers—along with the youngest fur trapper on the expedition (Will Poulter)—to stay behind. When Hawk sees Fitzgerald smothering his father, he attempts to save him and is stabbed to death by Fitzgerald while, Glass, incapable of defense or language, watches; his son dead, Glass is left for dead, and given a “proper burial” while he is still alive. Eventually, he crawls out of the dirt, and drags himself through the mountains and plains, with revenge as his life force and saving grace.
At its best, The Revenant is a harsh frontier film that we’ve never seen before. In this unsettled American West, nature is as unforgiving as Glass is. The wind pummels, bending trees and humans, rivers fall over rocky cliffs, and sometimes the only heat nature can provide comes from the hollowed out insides of a recently killed mammal. The villages that Glass encounters are abandoned, recently raided, or harboring men who’ve double-crossed the natives. If Glass ever feels any solace, he’s standing at a crumbled makeshift church or catching snowflakes on his tongue. In all instances, it’s looking upward to the sky, a place that’s just as empty but less threatening.
Sometimes the spiritual imagery is a little too on the nose and purely the invention of Iñárritu. But these flourishes are generally earnest if not downright obligatory (a visualized internal search for meaning is kinda necessary when your main character is so battered he can barely speak).
Where The Revenant falters, however, are numerous instances where Iñárritu attempts to make The Revenant feel more epic than it already is. His camera, lensed by ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Birdman), is too fluid in the action scenes. Iñárritu fills each corner with some nightmarish atrocity, or confuses with flurries of activity that interrupt the slower pace. He has Lubezki dive into the action with the type of handheld movements that remind you that this film was shot in 2015 (and also that create lens flares). This showiness separates us from the very setting that he wants us to view as inherently cruel. There is some great technical precision, but it muddies the viewer’s brain.
There are also unnecessary and obvious moments of CGI, such as wolves attacking a buffalo during a stampede and an avalanche that happens in the distance. The Revenant is beautiful, aching and epic in moments of stillness, of which there are many. But these fancy flourishes to remind you of the collapsing expanse and the murderous capacity of nature, are not only overwrought, but the very animation belittles a very handsomely and realistic looking early 19th century that’s been carefully recreated.
The bear attack is terrifying, the frontier is unrelenting, there’s a river getaway that is amongst the best action sequences of the year and DiCaprio has potentially discovered that his best acting comes when he’s crawling on his hands and knees, unable to speak (this performance, full of spit and shivering, stands equal or close to his career best in The Wolf of Wall Street). But what holds The Revenant back from being a complete white-knuckle success isn’t Iñárritu’s Sledgehammer of Dourness™, it’s his Tools of Modernity that tamper his approach to film The Revenant as naturally as possible. The moments when he trusts the audience to be in awe of nature are far more substantial, spiritual, and informative than the moments where he attempts to awe us.