The Revenant ★★½

It’s safe to say Alejandro González Iñárritu is still in the throes of love with the long-take tracking shot (or just with what beloved cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki promises), the technique he halfway fudged to extravagant heights in Birdman. This time around in The Revenant, he’s thankfully not so hell-bent on “achieving” that conceit one hundred percent, but it’s glaringly obvious the film’s many long takes—and there are a lot—are what he’s fussed over most. This obsession with landing the precarious choreography between a roving camera, gruesome battle carnage, and a harrowing bear attack (all while arriving at the right place and time to catch airborne muck and blood all over the lens, so we know just how real and raw it was back in the 1800s) has only an immediate, passing impact.

Outside of all this aesthetic showboating, what is there? A much less concentrated effort on Iñárritu’s part, and a hurried stitch holding together the film’s plots as jaggedly as the impromptu suturing of bear claw wounds on Leonardo DiCaprio’s battered body. These include a trite Malickian flashback device that lends otherworldly street cred to the Hugh Glass legend (while explaining his wife’s death and the son he’s responsible for), a whole subplot involving a tribe looking for their chief’s captured daughter that I’m not convinced even needs to be there, and most essential, the moral bankruptcy of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy by way of Matthew McConaughey’s Southern sliminess) and a young hunter who’s unwillingly forced to tag along with Fitzgerald’s murderous survival instincts for the sake of his own life. It’s a severe, brutal wilderness we’re thrown into, and the on-the-fly ingenuity of surviving it (seen primarily from Hugh Glass’ ordeal in another great DiCaprio performance) is where the film is most satisfying as a terrifyingly vivid exhibit of those logistics.

What’s most odd about Iñárritu’s latest is its striking visual resemblance and pace to the other Oscar-favorite Mexican director’s Children of Men, also shot by Lubezki. Now that Iñárritu has his camera focused on the clash of 19th century warfare, the overt similarity to the violent, bleak landscape Alfonso Cuarón imagined for the 21st century’s chaotic future makes it clear who’s made the stronger authorial stamp here. But, The Revenant is still a fairly exciting movie, far less of a gimmick and self-absorbed than last year’s Best Picture winner, and is the exact kind of physically demanding role the Academy seems to need before awarding actors a pay raise. It’s also ultimately a story of revenge, which is hard not to enjoy even mildly. But I still struggle to know who Iñárritu is as a director as opposed to who he wants to be. He’s becoming less of a unique voice (Amores Perros is still his best) than a reliable stuntman riding the coattails of his more assured collaborators. His keenness for ending on protagonists breaking the fourth wall with a look directly into the camera—that to me reads more annoyed than narratively profound—is an irony rich enough for me to laugh at each time.

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