The Revenant ★★

There’s a lot of effort expended here to attain an unprecedented level of verisimilitude, yet most of it is wasted, since the essential confusion of dirt, blood and brutality for authenticity poisons everything that follows. All this in service of a tired “back to the land,” narrative that’s really no more developed than the one that plays out in more restrained, reverent form in Dances with Wolves. Opening scuffle recalls Jancsó’s The Red and the White, although while that film convincingly used the chaos of battle as an ideological wedge against a supposedly coherent conflict, here it’s just a faux-Spielbergian kick-start, designed to shake up viewers and ready them for the awesome, arduous journey to come. Iñárritu, meanwhile, has no developed visual sense, or at least no ability to interpret the world beyond his own puffed-out chest, and when not whipping around in over-determined handheld generally settles for blandly static, center-framed placements of all these awesome landscapes and vistas, hoping their inherent splendor will itself add prestige stature, a maneuver that leaves the film stranded at the far borders of the ineffable.

So we get a lot of loud nonsense taking place in the shadow of those majestic mountains, rivers and forests, not to mention a running cycle of rebirth scenes, with Leo hilariously spouted from all manners of natural features, from churning rapids to trees to literally emerging from a tangle of horse viscera. Slowly, painfully, he transforms from a man with his feet hesitantly placed in two worlds to a fully realized honorary brave, blessed with intimate knowledge of both, apprised of the cowardly cruelty of man and the brutal efficiency of nature.

All this hinges on a dumb “nature = war = hell” dynamic that seems to stem from a dilettantish absorption of Herzog, and misses everything interesting about him by clinging to notions of the noble savage. This still might be digestible if the film embraced its stupidity (and parallel revenge imperative) and went full-on grotesque, but the ending fumbles things further with a non-violent concession to ethical harmony, which allows Glass to effectively spare the subject of his vengeance (Hardy having gone down a seriously ill-considered path when it comes to donning ridiculous cartoon accents as an acting style), while still playing witness to his death. This is done via the natural conduit of the river, which directly allows him to let the wild do his dirty work, tossing his foe down to the merciless unwashed natives, who respond by pouncing like a hungry pack of dogs.

Modern films still tend to handle this historical period pretty simplistically, and while there’s been some improvement lately, there’s a lot of work still to be done in terms of dismantling the prevailing mythos of the Old West, with all its attendant macho baggage. This plays like a modern update while defiantly heading off in the wrong direction, continuing to champion the sort of thoughtless frontier individualism that initially incited the wholesale genocide and rape of the land the film likes to imagine it’s so opposed to. That said, I’m not sure that Iñárritu approaching this from any other angle (telling the story from the actual natives’ POV, for example) would have yielded any better results.