My hatred for the miserable works of director/writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu knew no possible bounds until Birdman‘s release in 2014 sweeping me off my feet not only with how lightly funny (though still sobering) it was and with how well it utilized its cinematic techniques to put us into the mindset of its lead character. Since the apparent variable was Emmanuel Lubezki’s kinetic and warm camerawork, I was quite looking forward to The Revenant coming back as a one-two punch for Inarritu’s first worthwhile moment since his debut with Amores Perros, the only post-Pulp Fiction mosaic narrative to my mind that I can stand. And moreso, I ready to call Lubezki, certainly the most famous cinematographer today and almost certainly the best in the business, to be the best damn thing to happen to Inarritu.
Well, after seeing The Revenant, well, I still think Lubezki was the best thing to happen to Inarritu, but I don’t think he’s the grace Inarritu needs. For The Revenant is a phenomenally made picture, not only on account of Lubezki’s reliably beautiful cinematography. It’s easy to put it down as super color graded and redundant since Lubezki already has the superior The New World under his belt – both The Revenant and The New World take from the same leaf of featuring the wonderful world of nature as the subject of a gigantic tone poem, though The Revenant is like a lazy Werner Herzog nihilism bootleg covering it in snow and visually color correcting its central misery all to blue. And it’s not even the best part of the movie, though it looks so fucking gorgeous.
Because the ambient sound of the movie really makes one shivering in the theater down to one’s spine. It’s a chilly mix, with ghosts of tree rustlings, powerful surrounding winds, and even making the labored breath of our lead Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) feel absolutely unsettling and threatened at once. It’s maybe the closest the movie gets to actually making us feel as helpless as Glass is once he is mauled by a furious mother bear during his stint guiding a fur trapping company led by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson), making sure to also kill the bear that kills him. His breath and the air surrounding his lips and escaping is the best measure we have to both tell Glass’ resilience to his imminent death and to how close he is to that edge. He is so adamant to his will to live that one of the men left behind in charge of sticking around to give him a proper burial, the odious John Fitzgerald (an out of fucking control Tom Hardy) decides that its necessary to kill Glass quick lest the Native Americans who recently attacked their camp catch up to him and the young and innocuous Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Also Glass’s half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) who clearly objects to this and finds his way into Fitzgerald’s knife in front of Glass’ eyes. Fitzgerald leaves Glass half-buried in the snow and runs along with Bridger, who is unaware until later of Fitz’s poor treatment of Glass and totally unaware of Hawk’s murder, to catch up Capt. Henry and the other men.
Glass however doesn’t die. And his true story of survival (though heavily diluted in this movie in every aspect right down to the existence of Glass’ son that I don’t even think it was necessary to mention this) begins proper with him crawling his way out of the hole, settled on catching up with the men who left him behind. And it stops there to because from there on, as much as Inarritu and DiCaprio discuss in interviews about the movie being so much about survival – hell, they outright brag about how it informs their hardcore manner of shooting for real scenarios for DiCaprio to suffer through! – any and all possibility of the movie feelings like survival is a primary theme is outright stifled by the amount of misery and agony that fills up the screen. And it fills it up to parodic manner, from baby cubs searching for a mother we know to be dead to tangents leading to Native American characters wantonly murdered or raped, and this misery fills every space of the movie’s two and a half hour runtime. And that’s right, it’s two and a half hours of this and inches barely in its plot, by indulging in these noble native tangeants, having Glass continuously hallucinate his long-dead wife, and even trying as best as it can to humanize and relate to whatever Hardy is stumbling over. It even drowns out the other major motivating factor of Glass’ quest – his desire for vengeance towards Fitzgerald for his son. Unlike the concept of survival, which pops in with repetitively Malickian flashback entries occasionally, vengeance takes the biggest back seat until the film remembers it and literally plasters “JOHN FITZGERALD KILLED MY SON” all on the screen.
The human element to drive this story and make it emotionally credible at least doesn’t cut it either unfortunately or I’d probably be less bothered by its retread to miserablism. Hardy is getting praise that just perplexes as the guy who seems completely anachronistic to 1820 stumbling and mumbling around in a performance that feels like an impression of Jeff Bridges going through the worst high of his life. It’s the first Hardy performance I have seen that I can call bad, but it’s so entertainingly intense that I may be willing to lean it to the so-bad-it’s-good territory. The rest of the cast is so inert as to be considered non-entities, they don’t have the task of pulling the story the way that Hardy and DiCaprio do, and oh my god, DiCaprio really wants that Oscar by playing to the whole “physically demanding” more than anything else in this movie. DiCaprio’s presence is maybe the biggest thing that pushes this movie into misery porn rather than the inspiring and heavy tale that Inarritu begs we read it as and that comes a lot from his willingness to turn The Revenant a display of great big moments of action like him creating a fire and eating and vomiting a real bison liver (reminding me not only of Laurence Olivier’s famous “Why don’t you try acting” exchange to Dustin Hoffman, but also of Jackie Chan eating real peppers for a stunt in Project A 2 in character for film, a medium that does not transmit taste or smell) than him taking smaller moments to inform on how he is feeling beyond “Oh my god, this sucks but I’m pushing through it”. That’s not DiCaprio’s fault – it’s hard to evolve as a character when the only two points in your arc are “Do I wanna kill Fitzgerald?” and “Fuck yes, I do” and little to no tough decisions are made by Glass from that point on. But it means the role is not as complex in its communication of the psychology or emotional state of Glass as people hope and while DiCaprio undoubtedly goes out of his way to meet up with it and then some, I end up resenting the complete certainty that because stunts like this are what grabs Oscars by them balls (unless he had began the movie with “Hi, I’m Hugh Glass and THIS IS JACKASS”), it is the role he is going to receive his Oscar for.
I hate that I don’t have much more to say beyond this movie looks and sounds so incredible, but leaves me so empty, but such is how it is when I have a movie like The Revenant on my hands that absolutely does not connect with me on any level despite its technical excellence. It is very polished in presentation, but doesn’t carry any weight or gravity into the scenario. Nothing Hardy can do hides the fact that we’re meant to find him contemptible despite his appeals to survivalism, nothing DiCaprio can do offsets how little he has to say in the space of Glass’ vengeance (and that’s not just referring to his sparse English dialogue. I’d assume most of you know I prefer those type of roles). But is totally Inarritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith’s fault for having this sort of potential tale and just going back to Inarritu’s old ways of focusing on abuse and suffering without bothering to truly communicate in his film the transcendent means of it. Just leaves you to work it out yourself if you maybe feel like it.
156 minutes of this and I’m not sure I feel anything except the pain of my eyes rolling to sleep.