Early on in The Revenant there is a spectacular scene in which Leonardo Di Caprio wrestles a ravenous bear. Man’s subservience to nature is so clearly illustrated. The rest of the film repeatedly hammers home the same point but not nearly as effectively or dramatically, with cold, not fully formed characters decorating the gorgeous scenery. This is the film for which Di Caprio is supposed to finally win his much deserved Oscar, but as a performance and as a film, it doesn’t go much deeper than an illustration in prolonged misery. Di Caprio plays a hunter (Hugh Glass), whose party are ambushed by Native Americans, with those few survivors managing to escape by raft. Iñárritu’s handling of action is innovative and exciting, creating the illusion of long shots (as demonstrated in his previous film, Birdman) and quasi-POV camera angles to construct a kinetic chaos.
Beyond the early ambush and bear fight, action is minimal and instead we learn about Glass through arty flourishes and saccharine flashbacks which attempt to give Glass meaningful backstory. We’re told that his love for his son is his main driving force to stay alive following the bear attack, but we don’t feel this instinct. These arty fever-dreams are far too Hollywood and stylised, contrasted against the raw, survivalist instincts which went into making this film. Simply the extent of Glass’s injuries are quite frankly ridiculous and over the top when you consider that he manages to stay alive at all, which makes it hard to care if he survives just because it doesn’t make sense that he’s not already dead. Tom Hardy plays Di Caprio’s adversary, keener to leave his colleague than attempt the difficult feat of getting him home, albeit well chewed. Hardy’s barely comprehensible southern drawl is frustrating and further Oscar bait. He’s a fine actor capable of perfomring a range of accents, but please annunciate, Tom.
Much has been written and discussed about what the actors put themselves through to make this film, and let’s be honest, if you put yourself through some of these things to make a film you’re going to want to tell people. But misery alone doesn’t make a good film. When all is said and done, The Revenant is about little more than men being tough. Even The Grey was a far more emotionally draining experience of wilderness survial, even if it lacked the same directorial flourishes as The Revenant. While pretty, such flourishes are reminders that this is a well crafted film, taking you out of the immediacy and suffering.
Like Birdman, The Revenant is an exercise in directorial showmanship. It’s another parlour trick of a movie: containing all the ingredients of a good film, not least some remarkable landscapes, but without a clue how to make the film good. The Revenant is strangely emotionless, especially considering the endless pain and mental strength required of its characters to stay alive.
Review by David Rank
The Revenant out now in the UK. Rating 15 (UK). Running time 156 mins.