"Revenge is in the creators hands."
One of my favorite SNL sketches is a one-off game show titled "Who's More Grizzled," wherein host Norm MacDonald goads guest stars Garth Brooks and Robert Duvall into out-grizzling one another with rambling stories about the war, dead wives, and the like with the promise of salted meats for the winner. Watching The Revenant, I was reminded of this when, during one of many particularly grizzled exchanges between Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, I blurted out, "I wish I could give you points for that grizzled exchange." Provided you've ever wanted to watch fairly respectable actors roll around in mud while spitting hot venom at one another in the filthiest conditions imaginable, you could do a lot worse that The Revenant.
This blood soaked slog of a film suffers from nearly the same thing all of Alejandro G. Iñárritu's films do... a lack of cohesion. There's no shortage of vision on display, but the focus vacillates wildly between a scattered fight for survival and languorous shots of mountains and trees. If you ever wanted to know what it would have looked like had Terrence Malick directed Ravenous, this will give you a pretty good idea of what The Revenant looks and feels like. It's a film of two minds, earthly and spiritual, and it does little to connect them in any meaningful way. There are flashes of brilliance here and there, but they're so buried beneath this layer of artsy pretension that they hardly register in the grand scheme of things.
Based on the true story of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his fight for survival following his being mauled by a bear and his team of men abandoning him to die. The film chooses to absolve all but one of the men, focusing all of the evil in the film into the character of Fitzgerald (Hardy). Under the constant threat of attacks from any one of the native tribes trying to kill any perceived invaders, the team is forced to make snap judgments to survive, and Glass ultimately finds himself at Fitzgerald's mercy following the bear attack. This proves to be a fatal mistake for Glass, but when he is seemingly brought back to life after being buried alive, his quest for revenge begins.
The problems for The Revenant start almost immediately, with everything cranked up to its extreme right away. The film drops you into the middle of an ambush and you're left to figure things out for yourself. Little bits of information are trickled out here and there, but the audience needs to make a solid effort to fill in the many blanks. As with last year's similarly self-indulgent Birdman, Iñárritu takes it for granted that we'll root for his characters just by virtue of spending a lot of time in their company. It feels as though his films never do any of this crucial character building work, preferring to let the emotions and the visuals do all the work. It's getting taxing as an audience member to keep showing up to his films only to be bombarded with bromides and poorly drawn characters.
I get why actors flock to work with Iñárritu, because he doesn’t appear to give a shit what they do. He allows them to go to grotesque levels to achieve whatever effect they’re attempting, and they often go to absurd heights just to convince you that they’re working very hard on this film. I don’t doubt that everyone gave their all, but Iñarritu’s continued insistence on just giving his actors free reign is not as effective as he thinks. DiCaprio does some very good work here, but it's all so labored and unnatural. He acts with a chip on his shoulder, attempting to prove that he's a great actor by showing you what a great actor he is.
Contrast his work with that of Tom Hardy, who plays his character like a caged animal that takes every chance he can to break out of that cage and explode. Both performances are ultimately effective, but I prefer Hardy's more cerebral work to DiCaprio's flamboyant physical flourishes. Also, the scene where Hardy describes his father's story about how he found god was as good as any other single character moment in a film this year.
The film is gorgeous to look at, thanks to the incredible work by Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki has earned his reputation impeccable reputation because he’s an absolute master cinematographer. Part of me thinks that since he’s won two Oscars in a row, maybe the Academy should spread the love around, but his work here is just so good that I wouldn’t mind if he had an Oscar three-peat. The film itself, however, is perhaps not so beautiful as to merit the loving attention that his camera brings.
Ultimately, The Revenant feels like they took the last five minutes of The Grey and multiplied it by a hundred, and then brought in Nicolas Winding Refn to advise on the appropriate levels of gore, and then grabbed Conrad L. Hall just before his death and made him run in the mud with a camera for six days, and even this is but a close approximation to what you’re witnessing. It’s harrowing one minute and then long and languorous the next. Nature porn mixed with torture porn. It’s an odd combination that just doesn’t work. Not to pile on or anything, but couple all of that with the fact that the film's already overstuffed narrative is crammed with spirituality mumbo jumbo and heavy handed messages about the ills of Manifest Destiny, and it's hard to muster up what little respect I have for the handful of things in this film that actually work.