The Revenant (2015) / Adventure-Western

MPAA Rated: R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity
Running Time: 156 min.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Lukas Haas, Brad Carter
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro Gonzalez, Inarritl

Review published December 21, 2015

Leonardo DiCaprio The RevenantAlejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's follow-up to his Oscar-winning film Birdman sees him go for a Western adventure of the most potent variety in The Revenant, a grueling tale of bloody revenge set in the wilderness of (presumably) the Dakotas in the 19th Century.  As with that film, the very demanding and volatile Inarritu continues to try to push the boundaries of how difficult his films will be to shoot, perhaps supposing that the more he puts into the filmmaking process, the bigger the reward there will be for finishing it.  Shot in the wilderness of Canada (and a bit in Argentina) over a marathon filming schedule of nine months, using only natural light, the shoot proved to be a difficult one, with remote locations and limited availability of just a few hours of daylight to shoot in.  The beauty of the scenery is juxtaposed with the ugly side of humanity, which succumbs to the 'survival of the fittest' mentality found in the untamed woods and mountains that surround them; it's a place where Heaven and Hell exists simultaneously.

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained) stars as Hugh Glass, who is mauled by a mama grizzly bear while out with a hunting party of fur trappers, leaving him barely clinging to life with severe trauma and a plethora of injuries.  Glass's teenage son Hawk (a fictional character added for dramatic effect), who was the son of a murdered Pawnee lover, won't leave his side, though that also leaves him largely unprotected among a group of men with their own prejudices, and their own reasons to hate the natives of the area, especially John Fitzgerald (Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road), who thinks Glass is a lost cause that's just dead weight on getting back to civilization that should be put out of his misery.  The misery for Glass doesn't end there, as he's eventually left for dead (hence the title), committed to dragging himself out of his shallow grave, crawling high and low, through rocks, rivers and snow, in order to try to right the wrongs that have been perpetrated against him.

Inarritu's Western, very loosely adapted from a 2002 historical novel by Michael Punke, is a bleak and uncompromising one -- intensely savage, viscerally grimy, and brutally violent.  Working once again with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, who specializes in complicated long takes in such films as Children of Men, Gravity, and Inarritu's Birdman, the film has plenty of difficult scenes that play out with elaborately constructed choreography, involving hand-to-hand combat, arrow attacks, and the showstopper of a single-shot sequence involving the bear attack.  If there's one aspect of Lubezki's lensing that could have been done away with, it's the use of the gimmicky, extreme-close-up, wide-angle shots that the entire movie is filmed in, giving a decidedly fishbowl-esque vision of this world that persistently reminds us we're watching a movie.  The sound design is amazing, especially in capturing the whizzing of arrows and the hoof-beats of the horses, but some of the dubbing is noticeably off on occasion, perhaps due to difficulty of ADR timing during lengthy takes.  In combination with the hypnotic score from Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner, it's a a lot to soak in.

There are great performances all around, with DiCaprio going all in with what must have been an especially arduous and physically demanding role that puts the actor in harsh cold and performing difficult stunts that could have gone awry in a myriad of ways, including eating a real raw bison liver (and DiCaprio is a rumored to be a vegetarian).  Tom Hardy continues his seeming never-ending ability to disappear into roles, playing a particularly loathsome kind of scoundrel, who seeks only for his own betterment, willing to kill more for personal inconvenience than for pleasure, which makes him even more despicable than just evil incarnate -- his reasons for disregard for life and truth are as petty as can be.

Despite the terrific elements, as a whole, the film feels quite long for a relatively simple premise, which lets some of the thrilling aspects of the story lay loose a good deal of the time, undercutting the story's ability to maintain power amid the grandeur.  Channeling the spirit of a younger Werner Herzog in both method and madness, Inarritu ratchets up the mysticism in Glass's quest, suggesting a spiritual journey that's possibly a wrestling of Glass's own inner demons, or the remnants of visions in an after-life that he all but completely arrived at.  So why does The Revenant feel like Inarritu cares more for the exhaustion of the journey than the reward in arriving at a destination?  While it is an aesthetic experience unlike any others of its ilk, it's intense but never as emotionally gripping as one might like from a tale of personal revenge, falling short of Unforgiven or even Django Unchained in its ability to grip us with vengeance as justice, ultimately, Inarritu draws up the notion that there's little payoff in payback, both as the main theme of his movie, and as a movie. 

- The loose telling of Hugh Glass's survival tale has been filmed before in 1971's Man in the Wilderness, as well as in an episode of the TV show, "Death Valley Days", called "Hugh Glass Meets the Bear".

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo