Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman was my pick of the year for 2015 (Irish release dates). There was a confluence of greatness all throughout that picture, from the performances, to the script to that incredible cinematography, all elements of a film whose general narrative and depth was top notch. The film’s success has made Inarritu, far more than on the basis of his previous works, a true Hollywood darling, and with that comes the opportunity to have more of a free-hand in his following project.
The result is The Revenant, a film plagued with production, budget and scheduling difficulties, but perhaps largely brought into being despite all that by the presence of Inarritu behind the camera. Sure, the film was pre-scheduled before the release of Birdman, but it wouldn’t be the first film that a studio pulled the plug on mid-production, or later wrote off, and having the current King of the directorial mountain in charge was surely a factor. Is it another Birdman-esque triumph for Inarritu and Fox? Or is it something approaching a vanity project for a director suddenly too big to be reined in?
In 1823, the survivors of a Native American attack on a party of trappers struggle through the wilderness towards the safety of a military fort. When key guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is badly mauled by a grizzly bear, disgruntled FitzGerald (Tom Hardy) volunteers to stay with him until he passes, but then kills Glass’ half-Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and leaves Glass for dead. Unbeknownst to him, Glass survives, and embarks on a harrowing journey through the wilds, seeking survival and vengeance.
This is a long one. So long. The latest in a genre of films you might well describe as “misery porn”, The Revenant clocks in at an excruciating 156 minutes. And where the director has previously made tighter, better made productions – Birdman is a nice 119 minutes – for The Revenant, he appears to have lost all sense of restraint, coming up with a narrative so bloated that whatever story it contains is lost in the ether of stuff that should have been left on the cutting room floor, if it should ever have been filmed at all.
Like Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight before it, The Revenant seems to have a problem with being obsessed with style over substance: Inarritu’s visual chops, backed up by former collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki as cinematographer, are on firm display in every iota of The Revenant, and the incredibly patient – dangerously so maybe – approach to the production results in something that does look rather wonderful, as close to a realistic glimpse of Louisiana Purchase America as you are bound to see up on the big screen. But no amount of well shot forests, hollowed out horse corpses or river-borne action sequences can make up for deficiencies in story-telling.
Because there is little story to be had here. Instead, we get Leonardo DiCaprio getting beat up, hunted, drowned, frozen, stabbed and generally mistreated by nature and natives, taking a break between rounds to sit next to yet another campfire (seriously, there must be over 20 different campfire scenes in the film, or more. It gets indescribably dull). With the screen to himself for the most part, DiCaprio’s Glass leaves the characterisation to dream sequences that occur every now and then, and that never get anything other than frustratingly predictable.
Everything else is grimacing and yelling, in a performance that is a very good portrayal of pain and suffering in lots of measures, but is deficient in nearly every other way. There is a difference between a great display of acting ability and what DiCaprio does here, which appears to have been little more than reacting to the grim array of physical challenges that the director threw at him. DiCaprio is better than that, but had no opportunity to showcase this in The Revenant.
Because Glass is easily the worst character in the story, one whose entire motivation – revenge for the death of his son, to be taken on FitzGerald – is weirdly presented after the death of said son, with it not being clear for a while if Glass actually wants revenge or is just trying to survive. With no one to really interact with, we’re left with the misery show, and little idea of the kind of man that Glass actually is, what drove him before, what kind of ending he is seeking for himself, what defines him beyond perseverance.
The dream sequences are perhaps meant to fulfil the task of fleshing Glass out, but they simply don’t. Even the quest for revenge loses much in the sheer elongation of it, as the film crawls first towards the inciting incident, and then towards the inevitable resolution at the speed of a snail. It’s a significant departure from the true story that The Revenant claims inspiration from as well, where Glass sought FitzGerald and Bridger more out of a desire to get back his personal belongings than to get revenge.
And the frustration is added to by the number of supporting characters who are far more fascinating, but who content themselves with the scraps of screen time left over once Inarritu is done with DiCaprio. Tom Hardy’s FitzGerald is the real stand-out, a desperate man in a desperate time, whose hatred of the natives is matched by his need to find financial success through the pelts he must begrudgingly leave behind. A manic, dangerous and altogether untrustworthy man: Tom Hardy plays him with a wonderful sense of denial and victim complex, a trapper who believes himself to be the hero of the story.
He’s also easily the best written character in the film, though this wouldn’t have been particularly hard: in a production where so much is happening with just one man in a scene, the brief moments when characters actually confer with each about things, mostly in the first half hour, are as rare as gold dust. FitzGerald’s ravings about the “Ree” menace, his insidious efforts to end Glass’ life so his own will be more convenient, and his ever angry aura being directed at the world that won’t just give him a break, they’re all great. The rest of what exists of the script, not so much.
Great too are Domhnall Gleeson as the Captain of the trapper party, and Will Poulter as a young Jim Bridger, who would go onto become a famous frontiersman of his own accord. Gleeson’s Henry is the man from civilisation worried about losing himself out away from that civilisation, and Poulter’s Bridger is the youth coming to realise that the trade he has chosen and the men he works with are not as good or clean as he thought they would be. Both men face difficult moral quandaries that test the limits of their mental endurance. Both are absorbing, full of potential for a proper story (and man, what a great 12 months it’s been for Domhnall Gleeson huh?). But all of that potential is neutered by the insistence of keeping the camera mostly fixed on Hugh Glass and his torturous road home.
Let us also not ignore the films other great potential plot thread, that of the “Ree” leader Hikuc, played by Arthur RedCloud, who seeks the return of his daughter from the white men who have stolen her, a quest that leaves a bloody trial behind him. But, again, Inarritu’s hamstrings this potentially great and fascinating insight into Native American life and culture in such a time and place by making it all about Glass, and Hikuc’s quest tapers off around the end of the second act in terms of narrative importance, only for his late entry into the finale to provide a sense of resolution, a resolution that feels unsatisfying and unearned.
Instead it’s all about misery, misery, misery, a story about man’s inhumanity to man I suppose, although told with such limited cast interactions and appreciation for characters that it is hard to believe that it was the same person behind Birdman behind the camera on this one. It’s perfectly possible to make a good story about a solitary individual going up against the elements – Castaway, All Is Lost, even The Martian more recently, they all spring to mind – but it requires a dedication to tightening film length, not introducing competing sub-plots you don’t intend to flesh out and resolve properly, and a commitment to characterisation through emotional changes and reactions to both success and failure. In my opinion, Hugh Glass simply goes through the wringer too much here, whether he is drifting down rivers, fighting bears, surviving Native ambushes or just stumbling through snowy forests, without anything else to back it up, make it worthwhile for the character, or to make the audience connect with the character.
With the film struggling everywhere, it is a good thing that it is at least fascinating from a visual stand-point. No, Inarritu and company aren’t doing another one shot masterpiece, but the care taken in every shot – God knows it must have been, considering the production details – is obvious. Inarritu loves his close-ups, and at times the camera seems almost locked on DiCaprio’s head, but plenty of opportunities are taken to just show off the luscious landscapes of the north American west: the forests, the snowy peaks, the wide rivers. The environment becomes an innate part of the story: the struggle to get Glass’ prone body up a hill early-ish in the film is a prime example, as the confluence of principals and scenery combine to really make the impression in audience’s minds about the wretchedness and desperation of what is occurring. Brief moments of fire amidst all of the white stand out.
In violent terms too, the cinematography is immense. Inarritu isn’t afraid to portray a vision of the American west that is a grimy as it is blood-soaked, and the opening battle scene is less cowboys and Indians, and more mud-covered drudgery, as trappers and natives struggle in the muck, and death comes from sudden unseen blows more than from actual combat, reminding very much of David Ayer’s Fury. The aim of this game is to survive, and vicious fighting is sometimes a requirement. Of course, as with so much else, Inarritu goes too far with the blood and guts at times, such as in an overly-lengthy sequence where Glass finds shelter in the hollowed out carcass of a dead horse.
Much has been made of the bear attack scene. For me it was hit and miss, and I can’t bring myself to praise it to the heavens as others have done. For sure there is some excellent CGI work being done there, but I had an attack of the uncanny valley personally, the animal seeming so real, whilst being fake, that I couldn’t help but notice the unreality of it, if that makes any sense. I was also drawn out of the film’s diegetic presentation by the bears breath fogging the camera up, a very odd choice I felt, matched by part of the finale where actors engaged in combat seemed to bump into the camera.
You only have to scratch the surface to see where The Revenant was going wrong, what with its tortuously dragged out shooting schedule, budgetary imbalances, crew turnover, environmental difficulties and some disturbing allegations of a director who did not have enough care for the physical safety of those working underneath him. The last point in particular always tends to set me off, but here I’m almost more annoyed at Inarritu’s obsession with natural lighting, a decision that meant so much focus on the visual side of things occurred to the detriment of plot, or so I personally believe. It’s hard to make something really worthwhile where you might have 90 minutes a day to actually shoot. That is not to say that there isn’t something remarkable in the way that such a vision might be crafted, but it simply wasn’t something that I am bowled over by: give me characters, give me script, give me plot, and if you need to bring in some stage lights to do it, so be it.
Ultimately The Revenant is a disappointing affair. Birdman was a film that had an excess in great characters, great script work, great use of music and a visual direction that I would describe as being in the top five of any film I have ever seen. The Revenant has only one of those positive traits, and while a film that is good looking will always be capable of getting kudos, for me it is simply missing too much else: a main character that I am engaged with, supporting characters who get the time that they deserve, a good script, a good soundtrack and a good narrative. The Revenant may go on to be an awards season behemoth, and if DiCaprio was to finally win big, I wouldn’t begrudge him too much, even with my innate despising of gongs being handed out to those that are “due”. But it was neither a performance, nor a film, that I greatly enjoyed. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).