I must confess that, prior to seeing trailers for acclaimed director Alejandro Iñárritu’s* The Revenant, I’m fairly sure that I had never seen the word “revenant” before in my life. According to the poster above, “revenant” refers to someone who has come back from the dead. And, well, obscurity of the title aside, it’s actually fairly fitting given what this movie explores.
The Revenant is an ostensible biopic about Hugh Glass, a real-life fur trapper and frontiersman who, in the early 1800s, was attacked by a grizzly bear, left for dead, and was forced to travel (often by crawling) across vast stretches of wilderness in the heart of winter in order to survive. It truly is an incredible tale of endurance; as someone who has spent time camping in the middle of winter, I have a great deal of respect for how difficult it is to operate in the cold for long periods of time, to say nothing of trying to do so while heavily wounded. Constant exposure to freezing weather forces the body into a homeostasis-survival mode. In particular, in order to conserve heat in the core, it will constrict the flow of heat and blood to the limbs. The fingers and toes often go numb in the process; and all but the most basic dexterity is compromised as a result. If the core story of Glass’s survival is to be believed; he should have died at any one of several moments in the film; not only from blood loss, wild animals, and warring Native Americans, but also (and perhaps especially) from what should have been the inability to properly use his hands to start the fires he needs to make it through the harsh nights. But somehow he pulled through; and hence the appropriateness of the title. He really did comeback from the dead, and not just once. Chalk it up to a victory for the human will to survive, I suppose.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Glass, and his approach to the role was quite intense, to say the least. Apart from the bear attack–which is CGI for obvious reasons–DiCaprio and Iñárritu evidently tried as much as possible for realism (at least in terms of survival) in making this film; meaning that, when we see Glass crossing frozen rivers or eating uncooked animal flesh (two of the many actions he has to resort to in order to survive), it’s really DiCaprio doing those things. Indeed, the physicality of his performance is to be respected; in the age of green screens; much of this movie–at least the most intense parts– could have been shot on a sound stage in relative comfort. That they elected to expose themselves to the elements this consistently and put themselves at risk physically shows an appreciable dedication to the craft of film; and I’d like to think that it adds an authenticity to DiCaprio’s performance**, at least in terms of the bodily pain he feels. As a side note, this is a pretty graphic film. Mainly that’s due to the vivid and gory portrayal of Glass’s wounds, as well as to the killing and/or mutilation of various animals in the picture. However, it also includes injury to others in the form of shootings, stabbings, and scalpings. The point being, it’s R-rated for a reason.
The survival aspect of this film is certainly the most compelling; but in terms of theme, The Revenant is actually a revenge picture. After Glass was attacked by the bear, two men in his hunting party, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter), as well as Glass’s half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) were instructed to watch over him until he died and then bury him. Fitzgerald, who wishes to leave, tries to kill Glass; when Hawk intervenes Fitzgerald murders him. He then lies to Bridger in order to convince him to depart as well; and, to add insult to injury, half-heartedly buries Glass in the dirt when he’s still alive. So Glass’s will to survive and journey through the frontier is as much for finding and extacting vengeance on these men as it is for the urge to live; and the pain he feels is as much emotional as it is physical.
There’s no question that Fitzgerald is despicable. He’s quite selfish, notably violent, considerably greedy, and arguably insane (he had previously been partially scalped by Native Americans and the movie seems to imply that he went a little nuts due to this). All of this makes him a great antagonist. Most interesting about him is that his perspective, while wrong, is never the less understandable. It makes sense why he doesn’t want to wait out in the wilderness for Glass to die, as he is exposing himself to much danger in the process–danger from the cold, from wild animals, and warring Native American tribes. That he would lie and kill in order to leave is inexcusable; but the sentiment is not wholly inhuman. In a way, the character of Fitzgerald invites the viewers to imagine what they would do if they found themselves in this situation. Hardy’s portrayal of Fitzgerald is quite good. He again gives us another odd voice–a feature in his performances that is becoming somewhat comical–this time of a heavy Texan accent, but he sells the emotions he needs to sell, and he works well as a counterbalance to Glass.
I should point out that this revenge aspect of this film is of questionable authenticity; much of the The Revenant‘s portrayal of interactions between Glass and Fitzgerald doesn’t seem to have had a historical basis, and the ending of the movie certainly doesn’t align with the known facts of this event. Honestly, though, I’m less interested in historicity than I am in being given an entertaining story. A movie doesn’t have to be accurate as long as it’s captivating.
And you’d think this one would be, with a great villain and the isolation in the wilderness being a compelling setting for struggle; which makes it all the more unfortunate that The Revenant somewhat fumbles on an emotional level. That first becomes noticeable when Hawk gets killed. Simply put, Glass’s relationship with his son isn’t given sufficient depth early enough, and so the audience is not particularly invested in it; meaning that not much is felt when his son dies. We know to be sad because it’s inherently sad to see one’s son murdered, but that’s as far as it goes. The movie doesn’t provide more motivation to become moved for Glass’s loss. It puts us in an odd situation of hating Fitzgerald (since he’s a good villain) for killing Glass’s son far more than we mourn Glass for losing him. That Glass’s wounds render him functionally mute for much of the film doesn’t help either. He can barely say anything when gazing upon his son’s dead corpse.
That lack of dialogue also effects our emotional connection to Glass during his survival trek. While I did earlier note that the DiCaprio shows a lot of pain through his facial expressions; there’s only so far that can really go. Without him having much he can say, it’s hard to get to know and feel for the man. His performance is observed from the outside; we’re not there with him; we’re somewhere else. It’s still interesting to watch him endure what he endures in the way of the cold and the wild; but it’s without a certain heart to it. I contrast that with another film about the struggle for survival: Cast Away. While that is a very different film with very different goals; the fact that Tom Hanks’s character talks out loud for much of the movie allows us better access into his thoughts and feelings; and he seems more credible and genuine as a result. The Revenant simply doesn’t let us get to know Glass to any similar extent; and I do think that works against what it’s trying to achieve.
Admittedly, this movie does try to make up for the lack of onscreen connection with Glass by showing us weird symbolic visions and dreams that he experiences throughout his journey. Some of these appear to be flashbacks to the time he lost his wife. I think the idea is that these are supposed to fill in the emotional gaps that we don’t get simply by watching the rest of film; but these visions are so cryptic that they don’t really do much to establish a better connection with the character. They come across as more gratuitous than anything else.
When focusing strictly on the story being told, I’m rather conflicted on The Revenant. I never lost interest in what was going on; but I wasn’t as emotionally invested in Glass as I feel I should have been. I was engaged, but from afar. And I don’t know if that’s good. It feels muddled in a way it shouldn’t; and that’s a very noticeable problem for this picture, and the aspect that really sticks with me. It drags it down considerably. Then again, this movie also got nominated for Best Picture, and while I shouldn’t change my opinions solely for that; maybe I should at least try to find a couple more positive things to say about the film before wrapping up.
Certainly, Iñárritu has crafted a film that is quite visually compelling. His shots of the American frontier (which evidently is represented by a combination of America, Canada, and Argentina) are spectacular, with large panoramas of mountains and plains stretching to the horizon; and close-up shots of little facets nature that you might miss otherwise. His sense of light is also appreciable; particularly at night when he has a single fire shining out in the blackness. It’s simple, yet visually striking. And while this is mostly a practical film; the CGI bear sequence is rather impressive; the way the bear looks and interacts with Glass is pretty believable; it doesn’t stick out the way bad CGI does. Hopefully that’s a sign of good things to come.
I also want to compliment Iñárritu’s depiction of Native Americans in The Revenant. The picture he paints is surprisingly complex: some Native Americans are violent, others are helpful; but all have credible motivation for doing what they do and are painted in largely sympathetic lights; even those that become something of secondary antagonists in the film. It’s nice to know that Western films have made as much progress as they have on this front of recognizing Native Americans as people, not savages. The same can’t quite be said for the portrayal of French trappers in the film, who are almost comically one dimensional in their despicableness; but that’s a discussion for another day.
In some sense, The Revenant has much in common with The Hateful Eight. Both are violent, gory westerns that take place in the winter, have very unique premises, and are adequately entertaining; but both fall at least a little flat in terms of their actual story. At least for me that was the case. That said, while it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, I do think that The Revenant is the better of the two films (it’s certainly more ambitious); and, despite my problems with it, I do think it’s worth a watch, provided you have the stomach for its intensity. I’ve really never seen another film quite like this one; and that counts for something.
*Iñárritu’s previous film, Birdman, won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year.
**It’s above my pay grade to weigh in on whether or not he deserves an Academy Award for this performance.