The Revenant ★★★½

The most frustrating thing about “The Revenant” is that it works best in its survival sequences, but instead flounders between survival tale, historical critique and revenge film. This problem becomes especially apparent in the concluding sequence, which turns on the aforementioned "revenge" component of the narrative while this component is not sufficiently developed. This is so that by the time that Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) is searching the snowy wood for Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) the narrative seems "reduced down" to something; it mightn’t have felt this way had the revenge component been consistently depicted as the chief goal or concern, and the motivations driving this goal fully expounded (I remember thinking to myself: "Is that all?”).

Indeed, the entire sequence feels a little off — the pacing (the scene where the party goes searching for Glass, their lanterns showing golden-red on the ice, seems premature, and I think that this is precisely due to the disparity I'm trying to draw out— I’d been so invested in the survival component that the turn here seemed abrupt— there is a kind of stuntedness as the narrative changes tack and awkwardly begins to clatter down that (peripheral) “revenge” alley.) What had seemed important and interesting now shadows off into the distance.

A lack of emotional resonance is perhaps at work here; Glass’s pursuit of Fitzgerald isn’t sufficiently meaningful. It wasn’t that I didn't care enough for Glass's family— I really should have— the story, reduced to its basic components, is heartrending— but too much of the responsibility was situated with me to actively project my own impressions onto the characters, to anticipate their emotional responses— I was not shown them.

Firstly, I wasn’t completely convinced by Di Caprio, which, given recent real-life events, seems like the wrong thing to say. Glass's internal motivations are only very suddenly given their fullest expression in the final act, and though I can grant a certain austerity on Di Caprio's part (trying to visualise myself expressing emotion with a bad flu, or at six O'clock in the morning, let alone in the wake of a bear attack with dangerously little in the way of food or medicine, rendered me more forgiving), I didn't feel as much as I would have liked to.

A further, perhaps more pertinent concern of mine with regard to this lack of emotional resonance, then, lies less with this austerity and more with the way visions seem to want to offset/compensate for it, depicting Glass’s devotion to his family as that force which compels him forward — these, however, felt tired to me, and I was unmoved.

The general upshot: there simply isn't enough 'in' the revenge story (which truly takes centre stage only when it's too late) for it to close things out on its own – indeed, the other ideas are just better-developed and the film is more strongly grounded in them. The one saving grace as regards the final act is the appearance of the Arikara chief – perhaps the sole unifying force here. On the whole, however, The Revenant doesn't seem to know what message it wants to impart — or rather, which to prioritise. It is let down by its disparate thematic components — they never quite form a cohesive, unified whole.

This was all such a shame for me since I enjoyed it, still — especially seeing it on the big screen! And, oddly enough, it didn’t really feel its runtime for me— perhaps because it was so beautiful. The opening sequence was about two of my three-and-a-half stars in itself; I was frozen in my seat!

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