Much has been made of the filming of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, a fictionalized telling of the true story of fur trapper Hugh Glass, who was mauled by a bear in Montana in 1823 and left for dead, only to survive and trek across the wilderness in search of revenge. As Iñárritu decided to use only natural light, film in realistic locations, and shoot the film in sequence, the film became well known for its grueling shoot before filming even wrapped. With star Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass and Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, the man who left him for dead, at the center of the piece, The Revenant is backed by top tier talent on all fronts.
But The Revenant is like a pristine shallow swimming pool – gorgeous on the surface, but with absolutely nothing beneath its beckoning waters. Beware, any who attempt a deep dive into this film, nothing awaits you but pain and meaninglessness.
The choices concerning The Revenant’s filming have the greatest impact on the visual presentation of the film as Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have crafted a startlingly gorgeous film. Through the use of long takes, wide lenses, and intricately crafted camerawork, every scene within the film is a contender for greatest shot of the year. These massive pieces of camerawork stun with their intricacies, many of which change focus, reframe, and continue for minutes. While it may be overly flashy at times, it’s obvious that the filmmakers wanted to make this a stunning work of beauty and within the context of the film, the choice to only use natural light and long takes helps to draw the audience into the narrative further and further. The feeling of cold and desolation is truly inescapable, practically seeping into your bones as you experience the film.
Within that narrative lies DiCaprio and Hardy, who have very different material to work with despite being protagonist and antagonist, respectively, within the film. While the movie belongs to DiCaprio, his performance is almost solely based on non-verbal emoting and physical suffering; and the team behind the film have made special note of how the actor really did jump in freezing rivers, sleep in animal carcasses, and trudge through harsh wilderness. But does that add any real meaning to what is ultimately a cardboard cutout of a character? Take away prior knowledge of those acting condition and does this performance merit exceptional praise within the confines of the film? Not really.
Think of the performances in The Revenant as acting on hard mode. The journey to the end is much more difficult, but the results are about the same as if it were done on a soundstage. Really, the sense of accomplishment for finishing belongs to DiCaprio, not anyone watching.
On the other end is Hardy, who once again disappears into his role, this time as a half-scalped, bitter, mumbly, and wild fur trapper who exudes deadliness. Of the two, it’s Hardy who melds more convincingly with the role, as DiCaprio’s star quality means the actor is always visible beneath the mountain man scruff and mauling scars. But Hardy’s Fitzgerald is still barely a character. He’s no more complex than your average B-movie, mustache-twirling villain, simply existing on shallow malice rather than realistic desires. In addition, actors Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter give strong supporting performances as the two men most affected by the struggle between Glass and Fitzgerald, with each adding some layers to the narrative concerning the effects of the wilderness upon men.
Because of its insistence upon realistic conditions, The Revenant is an incredibly immersive film. The cold and dangers within the wild feel like imminent threats and civilization truly feels like it is miles and miles away. That immediacy makes each action within the film all the more intense, with the film’s opening scene following a Native American attack on the central group of fur traders and the deadly clash at the film’s climax being by far the most gripping pieces of the movie. However, that authenticity cannot completely redeem much of the film’s middle portion, which is centered around DiCaprio’s Glass crawling through the wilderness as he screams in pain.
It may be dismaying and disturbing at times, but the pacing becomes a tedious slog rather than a harrowing tale of survival. Much of that is due to the fact that The Revenant is so clearly structured as a standard revenge thriller, despite its efforts to be something far more. The structure of the narrative is never in doubt, which means that predictability is inescapable despite the portentous means of delivering the story.
For all its bluster and beauty, The Revenant has startlingly little to say. DiCaprio crawls through the mud and snow, growling and wheezing in his quest for vengeance over the course of the movie’s two and a half hour runtime, but there’s no real journey to be had here. Rather than provide true depth to the tale, Iñárritu hits viewers with a barrage of dreamlike visions that repeat again and again in an attempt to provide some sort of subtext. But does it really mean anything? A pile of skulls, a flashback to a death, and the same lines whispered on repeat over slow moving frames does not create actual meaning, but is instead an attempt to fool viewers into believing that there is.
The true problem with The Revenant is not that it is poorly made or uninteresting, but that it believes itself to be some deeply spiritual experience when it actually has fewer layers than today’s average blockbuster. But again and again, Iñárritu pushes the idea of how truly important The Revenant is upon you all the way up until the final shot, which may just be one of the most empty-headed screams of self-importance seen on film in years. From drawn-out pans through snowy mountains to spiritual soliloquys on God, this is a movie that demands to be analyzed and pondered over for years, with viewers meant to dig deep to unpack its elusive meaning.
And why is it so elusive? Because there really is no meaning here.
While The Revenant may touch upon the potential meaninglessness of life, the meaninglessness of its narrative isn’t a beautiful pairing of form and content. This is pretention at its most grandiose, which informed every choice made here, from the insistence upon using only natural light to DiCaprio vomiting up real Bison liver on screen. But does the difficulty of a film’s creation automatically give a greater importance to the film itself? Not really, especially when these were all deliberate choices made to surround The Revenant with greater meaning when the art itself has none.
This is exquisite window dressing that is as gorgeous as anything put on the big screen in years. But those big flashing signs of deluded self-importance certainly ruin the view.