The Revenant is one of the most extreme movies of 2015, and that’s both a virtue and a setback. Nearly three hours, it is simultaneously intense and tiresome, the visceral masterpiece you both admire and want to end after the first hour comes to a close. Like director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s last foray into film, 2014’s bang-up of a black comedy, Birdman, it is not the type of film respectful of your personal space, infatuated with providing us with an experience and not something cinematically chintzy. Its artistic risks are enormous, its acting transcendent. But unlike Birdman, we’re overtaken with a sense of directorial self-indulgence rather than manic precision; this time around, Iñárritu’s celluloid-based aspirations are sometimes too lengthy for us to fully devour, impressive but emotionally draining holistically.
I find it difficult to outrightly criticize The Revenant, both because there are no unmitigated flaws and because its popular reception has figured its likability to be more a case of personal preference. Those I saw it with were enamored of its audacity and fervency, naming it as one of their favorite moviegoing experiences of the year. I found myself turned off by its running time and the way it doesn’t seem to be made for anybody but actors looking for a career challenge. But once again — preference is of immense weightiness. As I search for something technically or artistically wrong with The Revenant, I return with nothing.
No matter my response, though, I cannot deny that The Revenant makes for great filmmaking, nor can I cast aside its stupefying actors, who went through hell during the production process and still manage to give unnervingly naturalistic performances. Leonardo DiCaprio, a sure-bet for the Best Actor award at the upcoming Academy Awards, is the film’s front-and-center as Hugh Glass, a trapper hunting for pelts with a group of men hired under the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Set in 1823, we are conclusively transported to a time of little hope and survival-of-the-fittest mechanisms; in a land where death is premature, no one is concerned with much more than their well-being.
So endurance is tested when the forty-some men are attacked by an army of ruthless Native Americans, leaving only a dozen or so alive, Glass among them. The fleet is planning to return their findings to their home base, Fort Kiowa; but desperate attempts at seeking safety are halted when Glass is viciously attacked by a bear when out scouting. On the verge of death, the crew decides to leave him in their wake with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Jim Bridger (Will Poutler), and Glass’s son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the rest returning their goods as their comrades wait for their injured colleague to heal from his wounds.
But this idea proves to be dire after Fitzgerald ends up being a hell of a lot more self-interested than he at first seems. After only a few days of living off the land, he decides to quicken the journey by leaving Glass behind, killing Hawk, and fabricating a faux attack story to persuade Bridger to go along with the immoral decision. Fitzgerald throws Glass’s bloody body into a shallow grave, and the men leave. Aware of what they’ve done to him and his son, it doesn’t take long for Glass to recover from his injuries and go off on a trek of mad revenge.
The Revenant’s themes of vengeance are strung out in a punishing run time, to the point of being straining, but we are nevertheless impossibly in awe of it, in awe of how its misery feels illimitably real and how much the artists involved so distinctly devote themselves to its snow covered agony. Its imagery is intoxicating, courtesy of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and its sounds and colors are rapturous. DiCaprio’s performance is never less than brilliant (it’s one of the best of his career), and Hardy is deliciously villainous, totally deserving of his surprise Oscar nomination. Iñárritu has cemented his status as film’s most perilous talent.
But I never found myself able to grasp its pulse-pounding, epic leaps into tense oblivion, despite being so sozzled by its daring verve. No matter my partiality, though, those connected to its moviemaking breakthroughs are more than worthy of the major awards they’ll ineluctably receive. A must for the most adventurous of filmgoers. B-