After securing the Best Picture Oscar last year for creating Birdman, director Alejandro G. Inarritu returns with a production whose history is as troubled and lengthy as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. With a quiet, laconic tone usually seen through the eyes of Terence Malick, Inarritu’s The Revenant, while beautifully composed and strongly acted, often suffers from pointed character development and a meandering plot with grand pontificating on existence in hushed tones.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an 1820s fur trader viciously attacked by a bear. Left in the care of John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter), the two men leave Glass for dead and go on their way. Wracked with pain Glass goes on a mission of revenge after Fitzgerald viciously murders Glass’s son.
Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki delight and take stock in nature’s majestic silence, with much of the film giving way to the sounds of rushing water, crackling fires, and animals as opposed to actual dialogue in a juxtaposition of brutality and tranquility. Lubezki’s camera, filmed with natural light no less, revels in presenting the unforgiving expanse of nature as further proof of Glass’s insignificance. He isn’t just left to die by Fitzgerald and Bridger, but the elements themselves have no problem taking his life and burying him underneath new growth. Seeing this in a theater is worthwhile for how breathtaking everything is. Lubezki winning a third Oscar isn’t out of the realm of possibility and the proof is in the pudding.
There’s also an unrelenting desire to capture nature’s violence firsthand. Although spaced out significantly, the bear attack and the final showdown between Fitzgerald and DiCaprio are the harshest moments depicted on-film in a long while. The former may not be as gory as the hype implies, but Lubezki makes sure the camera remains close-up and static during the attack, capturing every horrific expression on DiCaprio’s face. The tactile qualities of hearing teeth hit bone will leave you cringing long after its over. Once Glass is ravaged, every movement and breath looks as painful as it should be.
Much like David O. Russell’s Joy this is another film “based on true events” that significantly diverges from the original material. In this case, Inarritu borrows the title and general details of Michael Punke’s novel, streamlining in some areas and pumping up in others. The audience who enjoyed the book will have to make concessions between translations, and while this is the nature of adaptations, Inarritu’s changes lead to a narrative that, out of one side discusses existential themes about life and death, and pointedly setting up characters on a formulaic narrative trajectory.
Where Punke’s novel was The Revenant: A Tale of Revenge, Inarritu changes the actual motivation for revenge, eliminating Glass’s desire to avenge those who left him for dead and stole his rifle, not unlike an 1800s version of Quentin Tarantino’s The Bride, and adding in a Native American son Fitzgerald kills.
The concession is understandable. By removing the rifle – more of a symbol for honor and pride, and masculinity – and inserting a child Glass’s revenge becomes more relatable to all genders. (Unlike some critics, this movie can definitely appeal to men and women in equal measure.) The problem lies in how formulaic it all feels. The child’s mere presence, and the fact that he’s half-Native American, leaves with little more to do than be a victim. We’re given no information or reason to care short of witnessing his horrible death. However, watching DiCaprio’s gutted reaction to witnessing the death of his child certainly puts you on his side, it’s just sad there isn’t a balance.
The addition of the Native Americans also presents positive and negatives. They’re given additional heft outside of being stock villains hunting down Glass and crew, but even their motivations are murky and hard to comprehend. Much is made about the kidnapping of the chieftain’s daughter that’s never resolved but desperately wants to act as some type of foil for Glass’s mission. And, unfortunately, women are relegated to either rape victim or supernatural motivator. Considering the book lacked women entirely, this might have been worth doing instead of presenting such needless characters.
Despite the narrative flaws, there’s no doubting Leonardo DiCaprio deserves an Oscar, in general. An 1820s version of Job, DiCaprio as Glass runs the gamut of horrific events that, by the end, it’s impossible to fathom how his body is still moving short of sheer necessity. Outside of the bear attack there’s a trip over rapids – a scene more harrowing than Sassy’s trip over the falls in Homeward Bound – and a cliff fall. Let’s just say, I’d have laid in the dirt and waited to die within the first fifteen minutes. Hugh Glass, I am not.
With little dialogue due to his character’s severed throat, DiCaprio relies on facial cues with emotion being channeled through his eyes. In fact, he’s almost at a disadvantage once he does start talking. Tom Hardy gets the showier role of Fitzgerald, a cold mercenary for the fur trade. Fitzgerald’s sociopathic history from the novel is removed here, making him unpredictable in his actions. Early in the proceedings, after days of carting Glass around, Fitzgerald’s logic for leaving him behind is grounded in sense, leaving the audience to question his true bad nature. Once he starts murdering people, all ambiguity is lost and that’s sad but Hardy attacks the role with such ferocity that the audience fears Glass is just no match for the man.
An acquired taste in presentation and narrative, The Revenant’s cinematography and DiCaprio’s performance can cover up many of the film’s flaws. (I’d also call this film the perfect PSA for vegetarianism.) The questionable addition of several outside character dampen the overall impact of Glass and Fitzgerald’s story, less is more.