The Revenant: Banal Oscar Bait Masked by Pretty Visuals

Director:  Alejandro González Iñárritu

Screenplay: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson, Will Poulter

Drama

156 min

A friend of mine once remarked that Danny Boyle would never make a good film after winning the Best Picture Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, because of the ensuing smugness that would stain his following work. This did not turn out to be the case (Boyle would later direct his magnum opus 127 Hours), but it is true that some filmmakers do drop the ball after receiving enough flattery from the crème de la crème of Hollywood. Take for example the talented James Cameron, who became an ego-maniac after Titanic, or the notorious M. Night Shyamalan, who has never matched the impeccable craftsmanship of his debut The Sixth Sense.

Photo from Keeping It Reel

And now, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu follows up his critically acclaimed Birdman with a bloated, star-studded adventure tale set in the majestic backdrop of the American wilderness. The Revenant retells the real-life story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an American frontiersman who survives a bear attack and then sets out to punish the men who left him for dead. At times, the film may seduce you with its near-mythical themes, adventurous camerawork, and handsome set pieces. Beneath its surface, however, The Revenant turns out to be little more than a self-congratulatory exercise of indulgence, set out to snare a bagful of golden trophies before fading into the oblivion of mediocrity.

The Revenant looks very good – and yet, against all expectations, it never feels mind-blowing. A lot has been written about the movie being shot in completely natural lighting and the film crew’s hardships of coping with the great outdoors. But the question that I continuously kept asking myself when watching it was: so what? Regardless of visual ambition and geographical scope, the final product struggles to look as impressive as Gravity or Children of Men – superior films also lensed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The problem here is that the technical wizardry is rarely matched by compelling storytelling; crazy tracking shots and sweeping vistas are consequently reduced to meandering and stagnant sequences with little emotional pay-off.

Photo from Pulse Radio

The brutal opening scene depicts a company of fur trappers attacked by an Arikara raiding party, and the intimate visuals are meant to place the viewer in the thick of the action. Instead of immersion, I felt confusion over who all these characters were and why the movie was already pressing us with close-ups of men being impaled, mauled, and gunned down. Gratuitous violence becomes less of a problem when the heroes and villains are fleshed out. Yet the film never resolves its drawn-out running time: apart from the incredible showdown between Hugh Glass and a mama bear, the sluggish pacing renders much of the spectacular action affectless.

Iñárritu never compromises the oppressive and gloomy tone of the film, and genuine moments of levity and sentimentality are non-existent. Some people might consider this unabated quality a stylistic strength, but to me, the two-and-a-half hour display of grit and despair started to resemble the average hangover: not quite enough to incapacitate me, but certainly enough to wish it would end sooner rather than later. And even if you are wooed by the visual style, it is hardly enough to justify the weak revenge plot, which rarely adds up to more than Leonardo DiCaprio crawling from one unfortunate scenario to the next. A doom-laden survival epic of this scope and ambition needs to have a better human interest story to sustain it – how about taking a leaf out of 12 Years a Slave’s book next time?

Photo from Rolling Stone

The plodding narrative is somewhat salvaged by a competent cast, and the surprising news is that DiCaprio’s lead performance is largely overshadowed by the Irish and English supports. Domnhall Gleeson and Will Poulter are brilliantly cast as the morally conflicted members of the trapping expedition, and it is during their screen time when the story momentarily stirs from dull hibernation. Tom Hardy wraps up a sensational year (Mad Max: Fury Road, Legend) with a solid turn as the primary antagonist Fitzgerald – however, subtitles might be in place in case you find his thick accent hard to follow.

And what of Leo’s star performance? Well, I was quite taken by his frosty beard! Beyond that, it is the standard quality stuff we have come to expect from Leo over the past decade. There is no questioning the physicality of his role, but I wonder whether there was really more to it than that. His expressions are grim and the lines he delivers sparse, and I never felt that I really understood (nor cared about) Hugh Glass's journey of retribution. That said, the likelihood of Leonardo DiCaprio winning an Oscar might finally put an end to the never-ending talks about Leonardo DiCaprio winning a damn Oscar. Moving right along!

2 STARS (out of 5)