If there was an award for Endurance Test Film, I’m sure that The Revenant would be #1 with a bullet. However, putting your cast and audience through a lot does not a good movie make and The Revenant, as directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is a film that seems to be more preoccupied with the look of struggle rather than the emotional resonance of it, and ends up falling flat.
The Revenant seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time at any point in time during the film. Rather than creating excitement by characters striving for base needs such as revenge and will to live, the script of this film and how it was directed really lessen the emotional impact in favor of an attempt at visual manifestation. The brutal bear attack is as visceral as anything you’ll ever see on-screen but the emotional resonance of everything else fails due to a botched attempt at surrealism. We can watch a man endure a lot to get to where he wants to go but when we don’t feel a connection, it’s hard to root for anything other than the film to be over.
Wild, last year’s acting endurance test, had similar problems blending the real and immaterial aspects fo a long journey, but at least those moments felt grounded. The Revenant can’t muster more than manufactured soul via apparitions of a dead wife (Leo, I thought we were past this) which do less to illuminate the character’s inner struggle than to slow down an already thin narrative. Also slowing down the movie is a subplot involving Pawnee Native Americans on the search for one of their own that is introduced so strangely and solves itself so neatly, it leaves you wondering why it was introduced in the first place.
Any time they want to cheat time it seems we would get a shot of some nature. Unlike with Tree of Life, where these moments felt like a mood and feeling were coming together, these shots feel like Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki wanted to show off how beautiful the scenery was. This is certainly fine in a National Geographic documentary, but in a revenge tale, these shots do nothing to move the story forward and feel incredibly self-indulgent. The self-indulgent streak doesn’t just stop with an over emphasis on beauty shots (the violence gets the same beauty treatment to diminishing returns). As someone who loves long takes, it pained me to feel like the movie could have done with less of them. This has less to do with their individual moments, and more to do with how they impacted the whole. Filmmakers can bend time to their will, that’s the beauty of being able to cut, however you have to be smart in how you use them. The Revenant draws us in to the spectacle of certain things happening in real-time but doesn’t do enough to show us how time has moved on. The movie’s landscape is never consistent and the movie can’t find ways to make passage of time feel organic.
The movie also struggles something heavy with suspension of disbelief. Audiences go into movies expecting things to happen that wouldn’t normally happen in real life. Even if it is inspired by a true story, which The Revenant is, you still must convince the audience of what is happening. There’s a simple scene where Glass crawls to the top of a ridge and sees a river, and in the next shot we see him down by the river drinking. How did a man so badly hurt it took him 10 mins of screen time just to crawl to where he was suddenly be down by a river bank, when there was no path alluded to? There’s many more sequences in the film that when combined with the poor pacing and thing story just stand out as wholly unbelievable.
All of this leads to a pretty one-dimensional film and it’s hard for anything of note to really escape unscathed. Try though he might, Leonardo DiCaprio cannot manage to move beyond the trapping of the narrative and Inarritu’s direction. It’s a wonderful filmed endurance exercise, but other than some brief moments with his son at the beginning of the film, there isn’t much in the way of humanity. Speaking of humanity, Fitzgerald, as played by Tom Hardy, doesn’t seem to have much. Narratively, this could work, as there are bad people in the world who won’t change, but Hardy’s performance is always at a high dial when in reality the movie needed someone with a bit more nuance for that part.Of the ensemble, I was most impressed with Domnhall Gleeson (continuing a sterling 2015), Will Poulter, and Forrest Goodluck, who plays the son to Leo’s character.
In terms of where the movie succeeds, there will be few movies that can match the technical might of this movie. Despite what was outlined above, Lubezki’s cinematography features some truly remarkable photography and images. The sound of the film is glorious, and would be one of the main reasons why people should experience this in a big theater. From the crunch of leaves to whistles to whispers, the sound of The Revenant is a fully realized sonic experience. It’s just too bad that the rest of the film couldn’t match that.