Unflinchingly brutal, Alejandro Inarritu’s period revenge flick is visually stunning but narratively stale (8.0/10)
Set in the rugged, untamed wilderness of early America, The Revenant revolves around the story of veteran trapper and hunter Hugh Glass and his quest for revenge when a fur trapping expedition goes violently wrong. With the unforgiving yet jaw-dropping beauty of Montana and South Dakota as his canvas, director Alejandro Inarritu (Birdman) returns to the box office flanked by industry darlings Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy to deliver a story that is as vicious and gritty as it is unbelievable. Hardy and DiCaprio, unsurprisingly enough by this point, both deliver powerful performances with the latter dragging the film screaming over the hump separating good from great. Yet, despite the cast’s performance and admirable commitment, the film is let down by a narrative structure that is simply too shallow and plain – the plot lacks tension of any sort and while the film is certainly a feast for the eyes and ears, it leaves the mind wanting more.
On the surface of it all, the narrative structure is a simple one. There are protagonists and antagonists; there are sympathetic characters and unsympathetic characters. The plot that connects these characters together, however, does the absolute bare minimum. Has there ever been a revenge flick where the protagonist isn’t able to exact some kind of karmic retribution on his hated foe? There have been some fairly creative and nuanced executions of this formula over the years, with anti-heroes and anti-villains but in The Revenant, Inarritu opted for a more literally interpretation of unexplored territory. Perhaps it is fitting then, that much of what make this film work comes from that very territory itself. The film’s setting alone seems intimidating enough; from its wide grassy plains, to its snowy mountains, to its gushing rivers, the land is as treacherous as it is beautiful. Inarritu deserves a great deal of credit for the film’s camera work – whether it is frantic, yet coherent close shot work in the tenser action sequences or in the wide angle shots that reveal the sheer vastness of the Northern frontier. The camerawork isn’t just for the aesthetic eye candy; the angles and cinematography have considerable narrative heft. Inarittu uses a tight camera angle during the opening chaotic scenes and so each new combatant jumping into the camera’s field of vision seems to come out of nowhere – succinctly reflecting the protagonists’ own terror at being attack out of the blue. Elsewhere, shots of a lone man struggling across seemingly endless mountains, rivers and valleys, properly capture the hopelessness of such a hard journey.
It isn’t just nature’s beauty that Inarittu commits himself (and his cast) too; The Revenant is uncompromising in its dedication to pulling no visual punches in showing us the harshness of life in that era. Audiences are treated to horrors ranging from, but not limited to, rape, murder by assorted weaponry and one particularly savage bear mauling. In all of this, there is little of the usual Hollywood self-censorship – Inarittu seems to have long accepted his R rating; certainly, he made the most of it. The Revenant doesn’t try to hide the injuries it inflicts on its characters, it flaunts them. Yet these injuries are only as believable as the actors make them – and here Leo DiCaprio earns his keep. The script honestly gives the audience little reason to care about the characters, and less reason still to invest ourselves in their incessant misery but Leo’s performance gets us to invest in, if nothing else, the protagonist’s well-being. Most of the tension in the story is centred on Glass’ well-being anyway, since his survival till the end of the film is all but guaranteed and Leo does a tremendous job of making it very clear that even when there aren’t Native Americans, bears or French people on his trail, Hugh Glass is far from safe and healthy. Likewise, Tom Hardy is able to bring at least some degree of nuance and sympathy for his otherwise thoroughly despicable character. It feels that is more through Hardy’s performance, than the words he says, that we understand the motivations and prejudices of the character of John Fitzgerald, and because of Tom Hardy that the film’s ending is anything more than lacklustre.
Yet, there is only so long that we can listen to even Leo’s laboured breathing and grunting while watching what could otherwise be a fairly engaging National Geographic documentary, before wondering when we’re going to get to the point. The point does come but not without contrived coincidences, unnecessary emotional manipulation and an ending that could have been predicted from the trailers alone. There is a reliance on lazy writing tropes – using Glass’ dead Native American wife for no discernible purpose, for example – that a film this competently made otherwise, shouldn’t have to resort to. Fortunately, even with those tropes in play, The Revenant is able to hold its own as an engaging, entertaining film – but I’d ease up on the Oscar talk for now.
Leonardo DiCaprio – Hugh Glass
Tom Hardy – John Fitzgerald
Dohmnall Gleeson – Captain Andrew Henry
Will Poulter – Bridger
Forrest Goodluck – Hawk