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Film Review : The Revenant

The Revenant (2015; Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu)

A visceral grind of a survival western with pretentions of sublimity and grandeur, The Revenant is one of the most technically impressive, visually astonishing, and powerfully transporting films that I’ve seen in a long time. But it transports us somewhere exhausting and miserable whose power is never as edifying or as uplifting or as meaningful as it would like us to believe. Its aesthetic claim to the title of art is equally grounded in its beauty and its pain, but does art need to be this painful to be beautiful, to be relevant?

The Revenant is set in the vast wintry wilderness of the West during the frontier era (evidently South Dakota and Montana in the 1820s, although no dates are mentioned in the film and only the slightest geographic orientation offered). Its protagonist is the grizzled woodsman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), acting as scout and guide for an American fur-trapping expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Accompanied by his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and haunted by the ghost of his Pawnee wife (Grace Dove) killed in an army massacre of their village, Glass nonetheless knows the land better than any of the other trappers and has the absolute confidence of Henry, although the roguish Texan Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) mistrusts him and attempts to get under his skin. The situation worsens as the band is ambushed and reduced by half by Arikara First Nations braves in search of their chief’s kidnapped daughter, and they continue to harass the haggard Yanks as they flee back to their fort.

For Hugh Glass, however, the road becomes unbearably difficult when he inadvertently gets too close to some bear cubs and is mauled nearly to death by the protective mother in an utterly harrowing sequence that is already the film’s best-known moment (though perhaps not its pinnacle of human suffering). Fitzgerald is all for leaving Glass for dead, but Captain Henry insists that their guide must be carried along with them.

Without detailing every beat of the rest of this draining cinematic odyssey, what follows is a repeatedly gorgeous, remarkably staged but ultimately dispiriting extended orgy of bloody flesh, dirt and snow, trees and rivers, murder and rape, mutilation and hanging, broken bodies and frozen corpses. Sublime bursts of natural majesty are chased too soon by slaughtered beasts and festering wounds, simple reveries like catching snowflakes on one’s tongue are viciously cut short by scalping Native raiding parties. Cautious, fleeting transcendence is hounded back into its secluded den by filthy-handed revenge.

The survival quest of Hugh Glass in The Revenant is, one supposes, intended to inspire or at least impress onlookers by virtue of the sheer amazing stubborn will to endure in the face of such unceasing agonies. Likewise, DiCaprio’s performance as Glass, which is buzzed about as being likely to earn the veteran prestige film lead his first Best Actor Oscar, is defined by the same herculean determination and commitment, the same aesthetically and philosophically heightened endurance of suffering. Having no reliable metric to account for great acting, the Academy consistently leans firmly on physical transformation and exertion as well as visible hardship in annually rating the upper percentile of the craft. The greatest acting, by such a measure, appears extremely difficult, and by that criteria alone, there can have been few performances in film history greater than DiCaprio’s here.

The Revenant is helmed by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose rambling meta-theatrical quasi-satire Birdman won him three Oscars only a year ago. Iñárritu mixes the technical exactitude of a virtuoso perfectionist with the vaulting, unfulfillable ambition of a shaggy-minded artiste whose reach inevitably exceeds his grasp, and The Revenant is a work of maximum idiosyncrasy in both of these regards. The technical accomplishments of this film are truly remarkable, indeed nearly unsurpassable: not only DiCaprio but also Hardy, Gleeson, and conflicted young trapper Will Poulter all do tremendous work, the costumes and makeup are incredibly convincing, and the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, shot using mostly natural light and steadicams, is thoroughly superlative.

But what’s it all for? A modern bloodlust western with dirt under its fingernails and an unshakeable tone of masculine sangfroid that would make even Quentin Tarantino sheepish? A document of human extremes that the surrounding untouchable natural grandeur either elevates, diminishes, or both at the same time? In between Glass’ crushing adventures in wilderness misery, Iñárritu gives us a fireside respite. Hardy’s Fitzgerald monologues to Poulter’s Bridger about how his father, stranded in a copse of trees in the forbidding wild, found God in the form of a squirrel. Then he ate the God-Squirrel, because he was starving. It’s a predictably Iñárritu-esque moment, a strident thesis statement to too-neatly sum up an absorbing mess of complexities and contradictions, a metaphorical lighted marquee reading “This is What I Mean To Say!” standing amongst exquisite piles of beautiful wreckage.

For all of its visual glories and inspired simulacrum of a vanished (and too-often romanticized, and absolutely vital) historical context, for all of its implications of depth and progressive understanding of the trespasses of colonialism (whose hollow core it symbolically approximates), The Revenant is ultimately a cheerless film, wretched in its soul. It’s the product of a culture that found and ate the God-Squirrel and, to paraphrase an American cinematic classic with a great deal more cheer in its soul, found that it only aroused its appetite without bedding her back down. It’s a spectacular embodiment of the absence of God, though it’s not like his presence would avail us, either. The survival quest of Hugh Glass is convincingly harrowing in its grinding detail but depressing in its motivation of grimly hateful revenge over enervating love of living (the latter quality which Birdman, whatever else one could say about it, had in spades).

Perhaps this objection should reside with the original novel’s writer Michael Punke and not the unquestionably fantastically talented and capable filmmaker who brought it to such red-blooded life. But it’s such a defining and characteristic effort by Alejandro González Iñárritu, so well-matched to his established work, its core elements and tendencies, and the ideas that he tends to return to, that both the credit and the blame must lie at his feet. The credit for stewarding such a magnificent and memorable succession of images into existence, and the blame for drawing only the most facile conceptions and artistic possibilities out of those images. The Revenant expertly drains our emotions but doesn’t deign to fill us back up with anything but desolation. We’re left famished, with not even so much as a God-Squirrel to snack on.

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