There's an engaging piece of historical pulp along the lines of Braveheart, The Patriot or Gladiator lurking somewhere within The Revenant, but that's not the sort of movie director Alejandro G. Inarritu wants to make. No, he's intent on making something closer to a Terrence Malick film, using an audience-friendly revenge plot to guide us into a somber, meditative, visually sumptuous tour of America's tortured past. It's a noble goal, but Inarritu is no Malick: while Emmanuel Lubezki's typically stunning cinematography overwhelms us with alternately awe-inspiring and foreboding images of natural wonders, the director often struggles to make his more artful touches feel meaningful. He's trying so hard to deliver something profound, but he comes up empty so often that one starts to wish that he had simply gone for something gripping.
The real-life story the film is based on is certainly a compelling one. The Revenant dramatizes the struggles of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island), a professional hunter who gets mauled by a bear in the American wilderness. Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the leader of the hunting/trap group Glass belongs to, asks that three men stay behind and take care of Glass until he either recovers or passes away (the latter seems most likely). So, Glass' half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), good-hearted teen Jim Bridger (Will Poulter, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and the gruff John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) stay behind.
Here's the thing about Fitzgerald: he's bad news, and that's obvious from the start. At the very beginning of the film, he starts berating Glass for no good reason and making ugly racist remarks about Hawk. After Glass is mauled by the bear, Fitzgerald immediately begins offering suggestions like, “We should just put him out of his misery.” Captain Henry witnesses all of this and knows full well that Fitzgerald is untrustworthy, and yet Fitzgerald is the only adult left behind to keep an eye on the wounded Glass. Sure enough, it doesn't take long for Fitzgerald to murder Hawk, leave Glass for dead and take off with reluctant accomplice Jim Bridger in tow.
Between the character's one-dimensional villainy and Tom Hardy's garbled backwoods accent, Fitzgerald somehow manages to feel like precisely the sort of cartoonishly evil villain a much pulpier movie would have employed (he's this film's equivalent of Jason Isaacs in The Patriot – an equally ridiculous character that works much better because he's in a movie built to accommodate him). As the film proceeds, Fitzgerald's consistently evil behavior starts to feel almost comical: of course he's the sort of guy who has to scalp a man instead of just murdering him in cold blood.
Meanwhile, poor Glass is trapped in a survival movie that ping-pongs back-and-forth between a downbeat, slow, bitterly cold march across a hellish landscape (the corpses of Native Americans are a common sight throughout the film, offering a constant painful reminder of precisely how “the west was won”) and an R-rated roller coaster ride (Battles! Bear attacks! Tumbling down waterfalls! Falling off cliffs!). This is a movie that feels curiously uncomfortable with itself: it sensationalizes quite a few aspects of the real story for the sake of juicing things up (most prominently, Glass didn't have any children, so his desire for revenge wasn't of the righteous “you killed my child!” variety), but then buries those juiced-up moments within a movie that constantly strains for significance. It all builds to a climax that more or less perfectly summarizes the film's identity crisis, trying to serve up both brutally violent crowd-pleasing catharsis and something more poetic but ending up with a sequence that just feels like a contrived bit of screenwriting.
Still, it would be dishonest to claim that The Revenant is a complete waste of time, as it's one of the 2015's most audacious achievements on a technical level and easily one of the year's best-looking films. Lubezki is one of the best cinematographers in the business, and his work here frequently feels like a dark echo of his jaw-droppingly beautiful work on The New World. Even when the movie is dull or frustrating, it's always visually absorbing, as Lubezki employs natural light to give the film it's bleakly beautiful look. The vast snow-covered frontier landscape is so strikingly captured that you can almost feel the sting of the cold wind on your cheek. Lubezki and Inarritu stage numerous lengthy, unbroken takes, including a ferociously effective presentation of the aforementioned bear attack (an expert fusion of live-action and CGI). If you see this movie, see it on the biggest screen you can find.
DiCaprio's performance is a reliably solid piece of work from an actor who always pushes himself. Despite all of the stories about the horrible things DiCaprio endured over the course of this shoot, you never catch the actor showboating (something he's very good at when he needs to be – see Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street, for instance). He digs deep and buries himself in this part, letting his furious eyes do much of the acting as his voice struggles to rise to an audible whisper (the bear attack damages his ability to speak coherently for much of the film). The movie is at its most effective during those long, wordless scenes in the midsection, as Lubezki's camera and DiCaprio's face guide us through scenes of quiet suffering.
Unfortunately, Inarritu is the sort of director who has a tendency to mistake suffering for dramatic substance (see also: Biutiful), which is why The Revenant ultimately feels so empty. The film doesn't miss an opportunity to place Glass in severe pain, to depict the murder of an innocent person, to underline the harshness of the wilderness or to zoom in on the solemnly mournful face of a heartbroken Native American, but that stuff mostly ends up feeling like gritty, pseudo-profound window dressing for a handsome-but-conventional revenge western that doesn't want to look itself in the mirror.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 156 minutes
Release Year: 2015