The last decade has seen many fine survival films, whether fictional or frighteningly real — 127 Hours, Life of Pi, Gravity, All is Lost, Lone Survivor, Captain Phillips, The Martian, Buried, The Road, The Grey. These films alternately suggest weary-resignation reminders that we’re doomed to die or the rallying cry of humanity’s better instincts to save our own.
The Revenant aims to join their ranks by crossing survival tropes with a revenge story amid handsomely mounted nature cinematography. You’d be right to expect a Terrence Malick-esque meditation with more action. Instead, had The Revenant come out in the 1980s, it would have had a trailer by Don LaFontaine starred Sylvester Stallone and / or Rutger Hauer and, mercifully, shaved away at least an hour.
After what feels like a real-time slog of boring, bloody and pointlessly brutal bloat, The Revenant reveals nothing about itself other than Alejandro González Iñárritu’s directorial vanity — to a far more irritating degree than in Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Despite Birdman’s flaws, rewatching it inside a freshly carved horse carcass would be preferable to revisiting one second of The Revenant again in perfect comfort.
“All I’m sayin’ is savage is savage,” says one of the characters. That’s the extent of the film’s animal-kingdom thesis, along with god being whomever delivers, or denies, mercy in the wild. No problem here with bleak vengeance films, bloody Westerns, or stories that reinforce the nasty, brutish and short aspects of existence. Many problems with a movie that pretentiously stretches out 30-second symbolism to prestige-picture length when concise pulp would have served it perfectly well.
More frustrating is that there are points when The Revenant could evolve. The story of one Native American tribe’s pursuit of a woman abducted from them could reverse-engineer The Searchers — a fusion of Malick and Michael Mann … or least Malick and John McTiernan. Instead, just another tired depiction of odious, unpleasant rape.
So much breath (or other sources of condensation or viscera) fogging the camera constantly reminds you it’s a movie and that camera operators were extremely close to actors’ faces. Perhaps that could play into a theme — the camera’s physical presence reminding us of the artifice in mortal vengeance, a compulsion sated that restores nothing you’ve lost. Perhaps a you-are-there cousin to The Hateful Eight’s monologue about the danger of dispensing justice that isn’t dispassionate. Nope, just more showing off, as if to say you can make a major movie under harsh, cramped conditions and get usable footage. What’s intended as intimate becomes inanimate and inorganic.
If you want a better version from the same year, The Salvation offers as much purposeful stylization and more interesting characters in 90 minutes. Or if you seek a scrawny idea given heft by room to breathe and ambitiously nihilistic vision, The Hateful Eight.
Instead, The Revenant revels in death, carnage and misery to no ends other than to: shame Oscar voters into giving Leonardo DiCaprio a make-good statue for a performance that does little more than convey persuasive physical pain; and indulge Tom Hardy’s vocal inscrutability as a cross between Sandor Clegane on Game of Thrones and bumpkin forefather of Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs
It’s an insufferably long day’s journey into night, complete with perfunctory CGI Animal Theater — a much-ballyhooed bear attack robbed of its staying power by its very duration and its inability to cut based on the demands of the visual effect.
Even as it otherwise grows tiresome, The Revenant is at least spatially coherent in its action sequences. Indeterminate locations aren’t bothersome. It felt like the end of the known world, as it should. There’s a moment where cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures humans feeling so small among trees as to resemble ants, mighty but miniscule in the larger order of things.
Overall, Iñárritu sees more “there” there than there is, and with considerably less discipline than he’s previously displayed — going nearly a full hour longer than Birdman and infinitely more indulgent. (Iñárritu even repeats a fireball spiraling toward Earth a la Birdman? Is The Revenant canon? Did Raymond Carver secretly write a play about Hugh Glass?) The ostentatiousness might have won Iñárritu an Oscar, but that style was absent from his earlier works (Amores Perros and 21 Grams), which remain his best works before he gave in to another gimmick (gluing together one roundabout narrative after another).
He seems to have abandoned his abilities of elegant, emotional storytelling for elbow-throwing showmanship. If it’s not a bug, it’s at least a malevolent genetic mutation. Again, the bear scene: It may accurately simulate the duration and intensity of a real attack, but Iñárritu would rather that we marvel at the lifelike work of his effects than how it’s destroying Hugh Glass’s body.
And while DiCaprio is fine here, his inner workings are in deeper play (separate from dialogue) in Catch Me If You Can, The Great Gatsby (2013) and This Boy’s Life. As a preferential performance of physical persuasion, consider the classic quaalude scene in The Wolf of Wall Street. Even if you sense Hugh Glass thinking, it’s a thought of one dimension and direction driven into the ground on which he crawls. DiCaprio needs no Oscar to up his clout, but he’s at his least surprising when chasing one (J. Edgar, The Aviator, this). But if winning helps him focus on more of the great stuff he’s already done, so be it.
In keeping with its caveman mentality, The Revenant represents a lot of work for very little meat.