The Revenant ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Having seen this twice now, I continue to be both haunted and disappointed by it. The Revenant is such an elemental work, one of the most staggering depictions of raw nature and human condition ever put on film, in the context of the dirt and grit and cold of the time period as experienced by these people in their taiga locale.

We know Emmanuel Lubezki is an all-time great cinematographer, and he conjures yet another memorable and impossibly difficult tableau here, yet there are issues of digital technology that prevent this from being the most expressive work it could be. There's a certain texture and impressionistic quality sometimes lacking from the image. Despite the locations being some of the most untouched on the planet and all of the physical creations (production/costume/makeup design) being exceedingly well judged and detailed, the image is sometimes too clear and overly refined. That quality of image is especially distracting in the first part of the film, as we are quickly thrown into an extended battle sequence. It comes off too much as being obviously staged, the illusion becomes a bit too apparent and we can sense that, yes, someone is standing there and holding a camera and making all of this happen.

It certainly doesn't help that Inarritu is obsessed with convoluted long takes, quickly jolting the camera back and forth at times when it is unnecessary. This occasionally leads to focus issues in the camera and strains the image as it moves on screen. It's still wonderful cinematography but it should have been all-time great given the talent and extreme lengths the production went to in order to film in this way. Also troubling on the visual side is Inarritu's sense of editing. So frequently I found myself feeling he was either holding a shot too long or cutting away too quickly. There's a lack of verse-building to the visual language here, often detracting from the specific feeling or emotion that should be created. When it seems the film is supposed to be presenting a mesmeric look at the atmosphere or exploring a thematic idea, he cuts away too quickly and halts the train of thought.

Many "gimmicky" edits are utilized in the first half of the film and only one such sequence really works, but it sure does work. After the main character Hugh Glass has been left to die, under a pile of dirt, he calls forth any ounce of life he can muster and slowly starts to crawl out of his grave. He soon comes upon his son, dead and left to rot in the snow. The noisy soundscape comes to a sudden hush and Leonardo DiCaprio exudes a sense of utter shock and emptiness as he peers upon the body. Slowly he crawls over and huddles next to his son and the weather is so cold that his breath continually fogs the camera lense. This shot cuts to an almost angelic gathering of arctic clouds high above the forest, a serene moment of reflection, before then cutting to the wispy smoke being emitted from the pipe of the murderer, Fitzgerald. If only there were more such instances of this where the flow and composition of the scenes held such power!

Those issues of editing directly play into the lack of thematic depth being expressed in the film. Inarritu seems to think one or two quick images of a dead wife is enough to make her feel known and resonate in our understanding of the main character's emotions, but he is wrong. Similarly, he reaches for philosophical and societal issues that are too unfounded to really bear much fruit in the film. Whereas a director like Terrence Malick is able to find and express the very nature of soul and intellectual wonderment, Inarritu is drawn to simply showcasing human suffering. Somehow, in his films, he seems to feel that is enough of a window into presenting all of the thoughts in his head. Unfortunately it is not. Fortunately, when he is working on a scale such as this, with such a visceral and kinetic story line and with a team of artists who are able to bring so much to the proceedings, it allows the narrative to always hold attention.

The problem is not just in his directing but also within the screenplay. Why does the film start so suddenly with action before we get any chance to know the characters? This is not the storming of Normandy beach, it is not some specific pivotal moment in the course of human history. For a story so much about this elemental place and the people suffering through it, they are not given the necessary attention before being driven into hell. Further plot points in the film involving native americans are all similarly underdeveloped. Yet, there is still an intriguing and unique mixture of ideas within the text. They may not blaze into a full bonfire but they do continually spark interest.

As for the acting, DiCaprio gives a very good performance. It is not one of his best, I didn't fully get from him the feeling of being a person of this era, but he is constantly professional and committed and charts the emotional territory well. Tom Hardy is able to express a deep festering and evil presence, while putting common sense of survival at the forefront of the character's reasoning, but too much of the external effort is apparent and the performance sometimes strains. Domhnall Gleeson, in a smaller role, is unfortunately miscast and not up to the challenge of playing a rugged officer. I never once bought him as a leader of these men and his growling attempts at portraying dominance were annoying. The film's music was hit-and-miss for me. It eschews large themes for the most part, staying at a low boil the majority of the time. There are a couple parts which stick in my memory as being very effective but overall the work was more shapeless than I think it could have been and at a few points it is overbearing. There was also one instance of an "action music" theme that wound up being a bit too cliche.

In the end, I have great admiration for The Revenant and it certainly has many aspects that will likely give it a place in film history. This place is not as a masterpiece or even a near-masterpiece, but as a wildly ambitious and unflinching portrayal of a vengeful trek through the worst of human condition, as filtered through the wilds of the 1820's.