Another year, another Iñárritu.
There’s a certain overwrought quality to The Revenant. It’s a property that characterises its beautiful, bleak winter wildernesses and its brutal depiction of trapper Hugh Glass’s struggle for survival and revenge. But the film’s overwrought nature also bogs down attempts at a convincing portrayal of the emotional states of its characters.
If The Revenant has one overriding aesthetic goal, it is to showcase the classic narrative conflict between man and environment. In the film’s case, it is a story of how the power of a very human desire – that of revenge, can drive a man to the extremities of struggle against the elements. But Glass also parleys with nature (and the Indian tribes, by the way, are part of what the film constitutes as nature) and reaches a kind of unspoken compact with it in pursuit of his vengeance.
The depiction of elemental, primal struggle with nature is the film’s chief appeal, and therefore it is to The Revenant’s credit that it does so with such arresting visual majesty. Nearly every shot shows painstaking craft in framing and focus. Iñárritu intersperses the primal and intimate brutality of Glass’s quest for survival with stately, impersonal shots of the vast wilderness in which he is lost. DiCaprio’s performance in this respect is phenomenal: you can really see the reality of his privation in his icy blue eyes as he wends his way through the film’s frigid vistas. The filming process was reputed to have been extremely tough due to the fact that Iñárritu insisted on shooting during actual winter conditions on location in actual wilderness. But it does lend substantial verisimilitude to DiCaprio’s performance, as well as that of the rest of the cast.
Sound is used with great effect, too – in one scene, DiCaprio’s labored breathing accompanies an aerial shot of roiling clouds lit from above by a wintry sun, spinning a narrative of human determination against the backdrop of his insignificance in the stark uncaring beauty of the cosmos.
The film’s focus on depicting the struggle of man and elements is the source of its greatest strength. There is a certain thematic purity to it that sets it very far apart from Iñárritu’s previous, far more layered and ambiguous Birdman. So it’s a shame that The Revenant‘s efforts to weave in the more human story of the man – the titular revenant – who returns from the dead to exact revenge on the murderer of his son are not nearly as inspired.
Indeed, it seems like the film expended its considerable filmic energy on depicting the man vs nature element, and was therefore too spent to do the same for the rest of the film. The film did not compellingly depict the fact that Glass’ desire to survive was motivated by his desire for revenge. One part of it might be the way in which the film sets up his motivation. His love for his wife, and son, Hawk is depicted in a series of beautifully shot but somewhat bombastic (and repetitive) dream sequences in which he sees his wife smiling at him, or recounts their slaying by a contingent of soldiers. Glass’s interactions with Hawk were also very functional and expository in nature, meant to tell, not show, the viewer of the bond between them. It doesn’t really help that they spoke to each other in badly dubbed Arikara tongue, which I thought robbed the performances of their emotional texture – mostly because the actors sounded like they were still figuring out how to shape their mouths to pronounce the words. Most of the Arikawa spoken by the Indians was actually like that – badly dubbed, stilted exposition that gives the viewer essential information but little in the way of nuance. And when Glass mourns his son, it’s highly ritualised going through the motions – the closing of the eyes, the placement of a plant in his mouth – all symbolic action, as opposed to raw emotional expression, for the sake of moving the plot forward with a minimum of fuss.
It’s a consequence, I think, of the film’s overwrought nature. The Revenant is not a sensitive film. It’s a film that depicts nature and struggle in its raw, unvarnished brutality. Everything is larger than life, portentous, and grandiose – the shots of wilderness, the fantastical dreamscapes, the foam on Glass’ mouth as he crawls out of his shallow grave. The effect, though, is that the film’s lack of nuance in exposition makes the vengeance quest feel not as authentic as it could be. More examples: the film is reduced to things like having Glass scratch out Fitzgerald’s name in the snow as a way of telling the viewer that he wants to spill his steaming guts out onto the snow. Or having characters act in ways that advance the plot as opposed to being a consequence of authentic human motivation, such as Captain Henry, who, in defiance of logic, ventures out to track down Fitzgerald with only a still convalescing Glass in tow, so that Glass and Fitzgerald can have their mano-a-mano romp undisturbed.
And in the end, the film didn’t quite end the way I’d hoped. There is catharsis in vicarious vengeance, but The Revenant doesn’t quite achieve that. In my ideal vision of how the film should have ended, Glass would have become more akin to a true revenant, a vengeful spirit returned from the dead that uses his newfound mastery of the elements of nature to exact a terrible punishment upon Fitzgerald. That would have capped out his journey and struggle nicely and unified the twin streams of his relationship with the elements of nature and his personal desire for revenge. Instead, however, the film’s denouement features a very raw and very brutal (albeit very well-choreographed) human struggle between Glass and Fitzgerald, with the both of them rolling through the snow and stabbing each other. Glass wins and gives leaves Fitzgerald’s fate “in God’s hands”, by which he means floating him over to the Arikara Indians waiting on the other side to scalp his corpse. I was hoping that Glass would visit upon Fitzgerald more of an elemental, terrible sort of vengeance, which I think would have been more satisfying and also more on point, thematically. But that’s just a preference and expectations thing.
In all The Revenant is not a film that quite lined up to my expectations of it coming in having watched its run of very good trailers. But it is albeit a very beautiful, very stark film, to be appreciated for its aesthetic mastery, if not for its (at times) clumsy exposition.
I give this film: 4 out of 5 water bottles