Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domnhall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck
Rated R for Strong Frontier Combat and Violence including Gory Images, A Sexual Assault, Language and Brief Nudity
I was one of the few critics who did not like last year's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)." I found it to be pretentious and dull, and its arrogance towards mainstream movies was irritating and a little offensive. I must have been the only one, since the critical consensus was hugely positive and it won the Best Picture Oscar last year (not that that means much). So while my anticipation for "The Revenant" was measured: it looked good, so I hoped for the best, but after "Birdman" I braced myself for the worst.
As far as gritty adventure epics go, "The Revenant" is a solid entry. It's by no means a classic, but it does do what it sets out to do: present an engaging 2.5 hour thrill ride. The film takes itself a little too seriously, and the decision to have the lead character rarely speak dilutes the film's impact. But the action scenes are well-crafted, including a bear attack that is as intense as it is brutal (FYI: get a babysitter. This movie is not for kids).
Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is a tracker on a team of hunters seeking pelts. Their trip is a success when they are attacked by a group of Native Americans. Dozens of their party are killed, and while alone, Glass accidentally comes between a mother bear and her cubs. The subsequent mauling leaves him near death, and while the remaining members attempt to carry him back to the fort, Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson) realizes that doing so is impossible. So, for a substantial monetary reward, two members of the crew named Bridger (Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Hardy) stay behind with Glass's son Hawk (Goodluck) until Glass dies. However, Fitzgerald gets impatient and attempts to put Glass out of his misery, but is stopped by Hawk. Fitzgerald kills Hawk and lies to Bridger about an imminent attack by the Native Americans who attacked them previously. They give the still-alive Glass a perfunctory burial and flee. Miraculously, though, Glass survives and despite his injuries, sets out on a course for revenge.
The impact of "The Revenant" is almost entirely visceral. We experience Glass's hardships along with him. This is due in no small part to Leonardo DiCaprio's performance and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's camerawork. This is a tough world, and Lubezki's camerawork, which except for one instance, uses all natural lighting, and captures its beauty and its lack of forgiveness. The term "man versus nature" is taken to a whole new level. It is this reason (plus Innaritu's tyrannical nature) that making this movie was so difficult that several crew members left the film.
Emotionally, however, the film is as cold as the climate in which the film takes place. The role of Hugh Glass is about 95% physical, and while there is a certain appeal in watching a gravely injured man try to survive on his own in the wilderness, it's tough to create a fully-realized individual with little dialogue or character interaction. For the most part, Hugh Glass could be Joe Blow in a bear pelt. We don't know what makes him tick. This isn't a knock against DiCaprio, who is quite good here, but rather an explanation of the limitations of this kind of story.
The other main character, John Fitzgerald, is more interesting, mainly because he has more to work with. Tom Hardy does an excellent job of playing a world-class jerk. Fitzgerald is blunt, unapologetic and only out for himself. It's a wonder no one shoots the bastard within the first five minutes. That's meant as a compliment, by the way.
What "The Revenant" does, it does well. It's too long (cutting out the useless dream sequences would have helped), and lacks a connection between the lead character and the audience, but it is effective filmmaking.