If the other wintery western of this year, The Hateful Eight, suffocated any kind of meaning under the gleeful meanness of its director, The Revenant does a similar thing but under artistic pretension instead of pettiness. If you’re me, this is infinitely preferable but still slightly problematic. Inarritu, Lubezki, and DiCaprio together cook up a technically impressive film whose point of view and story don’t quite live up to its near-perfect execution…. but that execution though!
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a scout for a fur trading party, lead by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). He struggles somewhat with the others members of the group over the inclusion of his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). So while he the one guiding them through the wilderness, there is already tension over how he might be slowing them down when he is brutally mauled by a grizzly bear. Captain Henry’s loyalty to Glass, as well as the fact that he knows the way better than anyone, motivate them to keep him alive as long as possible, but eventually he hampers their progress to the point that Henry appoints three men to stay behind with him and give him a proper burial when he dies. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), gets tired of waiting around exposed to the Native Americans, so kills Hawk and tricks the third man, Bridger (Will Poulter), into leaving Glass behind.
Believing Glass to be as good as dead, they make their way back to the rest of the trappers and continue on their way. However, Glass is far from dead and commits the rest of his life to finding Fitzgerald and avenging his son’s death. To do this, he fights infection from his wounds, starvation from lack of food, and the elements, all the while consumed with the sorrow over the loss of his son and his son’s mother (from before the beginning of the movie). They both appear to him in haunting visions that seem to question whether or not he is still alive.
It seems to me, what is being talked about most in this movie is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance and the likelihood of his finally winning an Oscar, and the cinematography by Emmaunuel Lubezki. I could analyze their chances as well as my personal take on their nominations but that’s a topic for a different post. Instead, I more want to examine this new movie in relationship to what they’ve done before.
Leo’s role here is like the entire movie in microcosm. While technically perfect, pushing himself to the limit physically and getting amazing results on screen, his character still seems a bit hollow (not really blaming him, just how the character is written). I think by the end of this movie we are supposed to think he has gone through a transformation by surviving all that he has survived, and encountering a friend along the way who saves him and imparts on him the futility of revenge. However, by the time the ending rolled around I was really not buying how it panned out. Straightforward revenge who have been the more compelling way to go here I think. But anyway, back to Leo’s performance. He is haunted in this movie by the wife and son he lost, weirdly similar to his two turns in 2010 in Inception and Shutter Island. DiCaprio always seems to be the sad sack with a dead wife, but what sets this role apart is the physical demands of the performance rather than the internal workings of the character Leo has to play.
In reading a little about the film, I found out that Glass’s dead wife and son were complete fabrications. It seems likely based on what you see in the film, because they really do just seem shoehorned in there to give his character more motivation for revenge and make him more likable to the audience. When I personally was watching the film, I sort of rolled my eyes every time the dead son and especially the wife showed up onscreen. The wife especially is just sort of an empty presence that is supposed to mean something to us because she means something to Glass, but I don’t think Inarritu ever succeeds in making that happen. To go back to my Hateful Eight comparison, it really is the opposite of that movie in that it definitely tries to get the audience on the right side of things, morally. That it ends up ringing slightly false is a weird comment on the debate going on between these two films. Is The Revenant less morally reprehensible because it attempts (and kind of fails) to give a reason for all of the violence and atrocity that goes on, whereas The Hateful Eight just accepts that there isn’t one? I’m not sure, but I know which one I was more comfortable watching (maybe that says more about me than the respective films).
Besides the obvious comparisons to The Hateful Eight, the movie this most reminded me of was The New World, also shot by Lubezki. I think this movie really wants to be The New World, but can’t really live up to Terrance Malick’s generously universal point of view. By the time The Revenant happens in history, that type of point of view is probably not even possible anymore. However, Lubezki and Inarritu still try to capture some of the wonder of both the environment and the people that the fur trappers take for granted. The camera is always searching around for meaning, whether in the vast empty sky dotted with tree tops or the faces of strangers. Some of the closeups in this movie are more remarkable for emotional impact that the longest and most complicated of takes.
The plot can sometimes be generous as well, though as I stated before the final act of mercy (sort of) on Glass’s part really felt wrong to me. There is a subplot with an Indian tribe looking for the daughter of their chief, who it turns out has been captured by the French. The film gives this story enough weight for you to feel it, but not so much that it becomes a bit overbearingly hollow like Glass’s dead wife and son. Eventually Glass happens upon the French, and I won’t give any plot details away, but suffice it to say he helps the chief’s daughter to escape in a way that upholds her autonomy. This was one of my favorite moments in the film, because even though it deals in darkness and violence, there’s an affirmation of the value of an individual that is awe inspiring. Glass comes upon this person, and recognizes her humanity even when the French have not. Because of this, you really don’t need the mystical visions of his dead wife to prove that he can have unconditional respect for other human beings.
I’ve gone on and on in this review, but a few parting notes to leave with. Tom Hardy is excellent in this film as the mercenary who just wants to get out of the snow and buy some land in Texas. He is so much more colorful than the uber-serious Glass, I was very thankful whenever he showed up onscreen. I don’t care what anybody says, Hardy’s accent in this movie is one of the most entertaining things about it. Another, for all I’ve been talking about the moral compass of this film, really the most satisfying part about it is seeing Leo’s crazy amazing wilderness skills. The amount of unbelievable stuff he goes through and survives is really the highlight of the movie, however much pretension Inarritu wants to pile on top of it. The Revenant may not be as good of a film as its perfect execution would have you believe, but it’s one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed wrestling with.
“He’s afraid. He knows how far I came for him. Same as that elk, when they get afraid they run deep in to the woods. I got him trapped, he just, He doesn’t know it yet.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading:
The New York Times review
AV Club comparison of The Hateful Eight and The Revenant
I find it very interesting that almost everyone REALLY likes one of the 2 wintery westerns and really doesn’t like the other. Hardly anyone loves both or hates both. Very odd. Good review.
Yeah it is kind of like a fight where you have to pick one over the other. I wouldn’t say I’m in love with The Revenant though, Carol and Mad Max win the year for me lol 🙂