The production of The Revenant is already somewhat legendary. Director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu insisted on shooting the wilderness saga in all-natural light only, and as close to chronological order as possible. The budget reportedly went from an initial $65 million to $135 million. Cast and crew endured grueling hours and brutal conditions, and more than a few people either quit or were fired by Iñárritu. He also said, “As a director, if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra.”
That singular devotion to an artistic vision while pompously trampling everyday human concerns is actually a pretty good analogy for the film itself.
No question, The Revenant looks fantastic. An early camera dolly moves over rushing water and exposed roots, then pans upwards to catch the morning sunlight filtering through the trees, as a pair of hunters move through the scene. The play of light and color and focus is genuinely jaw-dropping, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieves a similar painterly sublimity in shot after shot.
Iñárritu’s command of the camera is almost as remarkable. There are several sequences – a Native American attack on a crew of fur trappers, a horseback chase through a snowy plane, and a brutal knife fight – where the shots remain unbroken for astonishing stretches, rocketing from one bit of action to the next, all without losing track of the geography. Even the more mundane actions, like the protagonist Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) cauterizing a throat wound or chewing on some raw meat, are tinged with weight and immediacy. And an attack by a grizzly bear is shot with such relentlessness, gravity, and naturalism that I’m frankly stumped as to how it was even physically possible. I don’t think there was any CGI involved. And if there was, props to the graphics artists.
Unfortunately, like I said, for all its visual mastery, it’s unclear what human purpose The Revenant musters all this talent in service of.
After the raid, Glass and the other trappers head downriver, until the experienced woodsman convinces them to ditch the boat and make their way over land to befuddle their pursuers. That decision does not sit well with Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a man whose three personality settings boil down to greed, bigotry, and self-pity. After the bear attack leaves Glass near death, the outfit’s captain (Domhnall Gleeson) makes heroic efforts to carry him along. But the terrain ultimately defeats them, so Fitzgerald is left behind to care for Glass, along with Bridger (Will Porter) and Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). It isn’t long before a betrayal by Fitzgerald leaves Glass alone in the wilderness, where he is badly injured, half-buried, and left for dead.
Despite an all-or-nothing performance from DiCaprio, who must carry almost the entire film wordlessly, Glass remains more or less a cypher. This is not the actor’s fault. The script by Iñárritu and Mark Smith throws in some ethereal visions to fill in Glass’ backstory, but they fail to create much of an investment in the character. There are some thematic shoutouts to the will to survive, the ultimate futility of vengeance, and the European subjugation of both Native American society and the natural world. But they come off as half-baked as well. For the most part, Glass’ story and the considerable tragedies he endures are primarily MacGuffins, allowing Iñárritu to bring all his filmmaking ambition to bear on the individual moments of survival.
Hardy, free of the need to be the film’s sacrificial lamb, fairs better. He takes a small and ugly character and manages to find an underlying humanity that is, if not quite sympathetic, at least pitiable. It’s the act of a genuine craftsman, where a mere moviestar might have insisted on making Fitzgerald grandly evil rather than merely venal. Gleeson also acquits himself well, as does Porter as Fitzgerald’s unwilling accomplish. Both men nail the confusion and desperation of basically decent and well-meaning men pushed into impossible circumstances.
Looking at his other films like 21 Grams and Babel, Iñárritu is clearly quite taken with the purported import of his own work. And I guess I get what he’s going for here: a verisimilitude comparable to Children of Men or Gravity. But Alfonso Cuarón, who directed both of those films, knows when to get out his own way, and humbly place his camera in service to the story and its emotions.
By comparison, Birdman is still probably Iñárritu’s best work. Its story and flights of creative fancy, about a Hollywood actor trying to prove his own artistic significance, are a pretty obvious navel-gazing fit for Iñárritu’s own temperament and foibles. The Revenant, by comparison, is a much more straightforward tale of brute survival and endurance. And while Iñárritu certainly has a vision for it, that’s not quite same thing as knowing what to do with it.
I was riveted by the film, make no mistake about that. But I would not go so far as to say I was moved.