The Revenant (***)
Running time: 156 minutes
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter and Forrest Goodluck
(Movie House Cinemas press screening, Dublin Road Belfast, 04/01/2016)
“I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I’d done it already.”
LAST week I watched Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest feature The Revenant and ever since I’ve been asking myself whether it’s possible to admire a film, but not really like it. Appreciate the cinematic endeavour that’s clearly been undertaken by the film’s cast and crew, but just feel like it isn’t necessarily your cup of tea. Well that’s exactly how I feel about this movie, undoubtedly it’s a fantastic piece of filmmaking; a masterclass in fine editing and beautiful cinematography, but there’s just something about it that’s missing and I can’t quite put my finger on what that is.
This pseudo-western, inspired by true events, tells the story of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a frontiersman leading a fur-trading expedition into America’s uncharted wilderness during the 1820s. When he’s brutally attacked by a bear, Glass is betrayed by some of the members of his hunting party and left for dead. Slowly regaining his strength he begins a quest for survival and vengeance against those who buried him alive, particularly Tom Hardy’s character John Fitzgerald.
It’s a beautiful movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t afraid to show its teeth, the bear attack sequence itself is particularly brutal. It’s an unrelentingly raw and nasty set-piece and thankfully the much rumoured bear rape is nowhere to be seen. There’s also a particularly memorable sequence early on where we watch an attack take place between Glass’s hunting party and a group of native Indians. I’ve never seen anything like it before as the camera switches from one person to another throughout the confrontation: it’s planned and executed with a clinical level of precision and it’s fantastic to just sit back and watch it unfold.
At its heart The Revenant is a film about the human spirit, mankind’s endless endeavour to survive no matter the cost, but Iñárritu’s feature quickly became too ‘artsy-fartsy and self-indulgent for my liking. Much has been made about the director’s insistence on shooting the feature with only natural lighting and as chronologically as possible; this attention to detail might ensure the film is breathtakingly beautiful, but it doesn’t cover up a rather underwhelming screenplay.
At times it’s just too tedious and sluggish, particularly during its middle section as DiCaprio’s character crawls through the wilderness on his journey of spiritual healing. It’s all just a little too Terence Malik for my taste, with too many shots of the film’s beautiful landscapes and surroundings and not enough dialogue. As you’d expect DiCaprio gives a pretty solid performance, but this is a very different kind of role for one of Hollywood’s leading men. It’s a very physical one with few lines of dialogue, but the actor manages to showcase his physicality as a performer.
Personally I found the scenes with Tom Hardy and Will Poulter much more interesting, the two men deal with their respective consciences over what they did in very different ways. Up until the finale Hardy’s character isn’t really portrayed as an outright villain, he’s a complicated character with a troubled past, determined to survive no matter the cost: sadly this ambiguity is washed away by the time the film reaches its latter stages.
The film really only clicked into gear within its final half-hour, as DiCaprio’s pursuit of Hardy’s character reached its brutal climax. It’s a shame that this part of the film felt so rushed and off-kilter with the pacing of what had proceeded it throughout the feature; I’d have preferred to have seen more of this aspect of the film rather than it’s rather dreary middle section.
As the closing credits role and Leo stares out at us blankly with those big blue eyes, it feels like he’s staring straight at us and asking what he’s got to do to finally get his hands on an Academy Award. He’s clearly endured an arduous shoot in some truly bleak surroundings, all in the name of art he learnt two Native American languages for the part and the renowned vegetarian even ate a raw slab of bison’s liver. Personally I still think he’s done better work than this in the past, his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained comes instantly to mind, but possibly in the mind-set of some of the Academy Award voters this might just be deemed to be ‘his year’.
It’s a shame that in the end I found this film so underwhelming, because I’d been genuinely looking forward to watching it since I first saw the trailer. It’s by no means a bad film, but I just thought it was an overly indulgent piece of filmmaking and not necessarily my kind of film. It’s a 2 ½ hour masterclass in stunning cinematography and fine editing, but I wanted something with a little more meat on its bones.
Maybe like Iñárritu’s previous feature Birdman, it might grow on me after several viewings, but I’m just not in a rush to re-watch anytime soon.