The ability to accomplish something on a technical level is fantastic, but movies are about more than technical ability. Watch Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest, “The Revenant,” and you will, unquestionably, marvel at the technical feats of three-time Oscar winner Iñárritu and his cinematographer, two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki. But, they are cold, clinical feats and “The Revenant” is unworthy of them.
Along the same set of line, it’s worth noting that “The Revenant” is unworthy of its cast as well. This, too, is unfortunate since just as the movie has a great director and cinematographer, it also features top notch actors like Tom Hardy, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Domhnall Gleeson.
The tale finds a group of men, led by Andrew Henry (Gleeson), out in the frontier in the 1820s, finishing up an expedition for fur. Attacked by Native Americans, the frontiersman lose more than 30 men, with only about a dozen escaping. Henry is a less than great leader of these remaining men, a problem made worse by the fact that his men don’t particularly wish to be led, particularly John Fitzgerald (Hardy). Even so, Henry, with the help of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), wants to get the group back to the safety of a nearby fort.
I tell you that to set the scene and nothing more, that all takes place within the first 10 minutes of this two-and-a-half hour movie. It is only after that where the story truly unfolds. Glass, you see, is injured by a bear and eventually left for dead, but he lives and seeks revenge on those who wronged him.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about “The Revenant” is that it is incredibly beautiful to look at. The landscapes are amazing, the wilderness is amazing, the horrific visuals of the bear fight are amazing. This last thing is perhaps the best moment in the movie. I haven’t watched any behind the scenes “how did they do that” videos for this, but my goodness will you believe that DiCaprio was mauled by a bear. The gunfights and various other brawls are also quite grotesque and shocking, but the bear mauling is the unquestioned highlight in terms of gore, but not just gore, emotion.
The second most amazing thing about “The Revenant” is that all those incredible (or horrific) moments impart nothing but awe or shock, and that as soon as each scene is completed, the sense is completely gone. The movie feels hollow.
Some of this may be due to “The Revenant”‘s problems with character. We spend a lot of time with Glass as he recovers and goes off for vengeance, but for much of it he is on his own and we get little of his character. There is no to whom he can speak his thoughts nor are we offered an internal monologue. He just, silently (save grunting in pain), just proceeds.
The only way we get an insight into Glass is via his dreams, an odd amalgam of what seem to be real memories and those conjured up by a fevered imagination. Were these dreams a small piece of the puzzle they would be helpful, but they are the largest single element and nowhere near enough.
But, maybe I’m wrong, the other characters find themselves in conversation on a regular basis and we are still no closer to having any sort of insight into who they are. Particularly a puzzle is Gleeson’s Henry. As stated, he’s a weak leader following the Native American attack, but once he’s back at the fort he’s a new man. Even when he goes back out into the wilderness he takes this wholly different, far more commanding, persona with him.
At what point does that switch occur and why? One can’t guess. Henry, and many others, are gone from the movie for what has to be at least an hour in the middle of the proceedings and he’s just a different guy when he’s back on screen. We will never know how or when he found the fortitude he so desperately requires, and lacks, early on.
Then there is the movie’s main villain, Fitzgerald. How did this man, this coward who is filled with hate and unafraid of killing unarmed people, come to be a part of this group of furriers? One can’t even guess. We are given the briefest of insights into him when he tells of his partially scalped head, but it isn’t really a backstory as much as it’s a moment in his past.
Still, as disappointing as all the characters are, as empty as it all feels, there is Lubezki’s camera. We get up close and personal with the characters via the camera, which is almost always right there, hovering right near the men. It is amazing and absolutely gives a sense of who each character is while they are on screen, but that sense disappears immediately when the character is off camera.
“The Revenant” feels every bit of its 156 minutes, and while it isn’t too long, except for its drawn out finale (it should clearly end about five or 10 minutes before it does), much of it is instantly forgettable. The only things that will really stick with you are the sense of the amazing beauty—and brutality—of the wilderness, and the bear mauling. It very much feels like a missed opportunity.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox