Vibrant orange flames stand out against a winter landscape dyed blue with cold. A man rides a horse straight over a steep cliff. Native Americans assault an American encampment, picking off fleeing woodsmen with a barrage of arrows. These admittedly striking images and more have been enough to sway critics and publications, including The Cheat Sheet, into praising and recommending The Revenant — the newest film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu who cleaned up at the Oscars last year for Birdman — as well as the persistent PR story about how hard it was for the actors to make it. But sometimes stunning cinematography and vivid brutality aren’t enough.
The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki is undoubtedly impressive, capturing the harsh conditions of the Rocky Mountains in frontier days using myriad wide shots of natural landscapes as well as intimate extreme close-ups of actors with a perpetually mobile camera, which only occasionally becomes tiring, particularly whenever Leonardo DiCaprio’s Phillip Glass is in particular agony and practically spits on the camera. That happens at least three times. Lubezki is undeniably talented in capturing the regions he films and more than a few sequences are doubly impressive for being shot in long-take.
Iñárritu’s primary inspirations for this meditative tale of survival seem to be Terrence Malick and Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, but Iñárritu can’t match the substance of those filmmakers. The Revenant wants to convince the audience that it is important because it features scenes of brutality and raw survival as well as sad music playing over flashbacks of Natives’ homes burning. Birdman did its best to announce its importance too, although the messages of both films, whatever they are, are muddled by an unfocused script in the case of Birdman and a simple lack of anything worth saying in The Revenant. This is a film whose plodding runtime far exceeds its actual substance.
In spite of all the scenes of natural beauty and cruelty with whispered Native American narration about the human spirit, The Revenant is empty. It doesn’t have much to say, and what it is trying to say, it says poorly. If the film is about the struggle between humanity and nature, its protagonist ought to demonstrate the difficulties and triumphs of humanity in some form or another, but sadly Leonardo DiCaprio’s Phillip Glass is empty just like the film around him.
DiCaprio is the frontrunner for Best Actor this Oscar season for his performance as the woodsman, even though his performance here is more about enduring grueling pain than it is about creating a character worth caring about. Aside from one of Inarritu’s tired “spiritual” scenes that feel like an unsuccessful attempt to ape the work of Malick (The Tree of Life), his journey is entirely physical, driven only by the same motive that drives many pulpy action heroes — revenge.
For not only is he left for dead by his comrades, led by his treacherous rival John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, chewing the scenery with one of his trademark unintelligible accents), his son is murdered before his eyes as well, an event that ought to affect us as much as it affects Glass himself. But it doesn’t, because neither character is ever made interesting and worth caring about. It might be impressive to consider all that DiCaprio went through for the sake of this proudly grueling film, but all his pained grunting and suffering through winter conditions don’t make for a compelling protagonist or even for a real character.
Maybe the only character worth caring about in the whole film is Will Poulter’s less-experienced young woodsman Bridger, who struggles with the knowledge that he left Glass and his son (who he believes is still alive) for dead at the insistence of Fitzgerald, now his best chance of making it back to some kind of civilization. As Devin Faraci of Birth.Movies.Death. notes, his turmoil is internal and relatable, versus DiCaprio’s purely physical tests of endurance that might impress for their craft but rarely involve us in the story Iñárritu is trying to tell.
The Revenant tries to mine thematic importance out of a series of Native American characters who help or hinder, in one way or another, our predominantly white male main characters. But even when it comes to the tragic history of Native Americans, The Revenant doesn’t have much to say that hasn’t been said before, trafficking in noble savage cliches we’ve seen a thousand times before. While one native tribe searches for a kidnapped daughter and brutally ransacks white campsites, others are taken captive by Frenchmen so they might be saved by Glass and one serves briefly as his wise guide, offering pieces of noble knowledge and platitudes like “Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine.”
The latter might be the closest The Revenant gets to creating an actual Native American character, and he even shares with DiCaprio one of the film’s stronger scenes, simply because it’s different. Amid all the disembowelment and misery and chilly winter landscapes, Glass and his Native guide share a moment where they simply rest and catch snowflakes on their tongues like kids as they start raining down. It’s a refreshing moment of camaraderie and happiness that actually makes you feel connected with Glass and his struggle for a change. The next morning, of course, that same Native American is found strung up and hanged from a nearby tree, because The Revenant is a film that apparently doesn’t want you to be entertained or compelled but simply exhausted and impressed with it. I was occasionally impressed with the visuals, but I would have been more impressed by a film that made me feel… something.
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