I’m one of a rapidly shrinking camp that still thinks that BIRDMAN deserved to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards last year. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu is an iconoclast out to shake things up in Hollywood by being stylistically bold and making life very difficult for himself, his cast and his crew. I can’t dismiss the amount of work put into THE REVENANT, the commitment to reality to the extent that the cast fought very real hypothermia to come to terms with their characters’ struggles. What I can do is admit that for me, it didn’t quite work as a film.
Life was tough for early Nineteenth Century fur trappers. Living in the wilderness and battling the elements for months on end, their lives were unforgiving and a near-constant test of their endurance. In 1823 while leading a potentially lucrative expedition, experienced trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) found himself on the business end of a bear, and soon found himself abandoned by his party and fighting for his life. The film follows this struggle for survival and Glass’s drive to get his revenge on the man who betrayed him (Tom Hardy).
I am so sick of the “Noble Savage” representation of Native Americans. It’s slightly less offensive than the faceless barbarians portrayed in early Westerns, but it’s still incredibly patronising. Glass as our protagonist being a friend of the native and more in touch with nature than his associates are also tired conventions. Of course our hero is at one with nature, bending it but never breaking it. His spirit animal is probably an eagle.
Iñárritu’s direction, like with Birdman is showy and full of ambitious long-takes. Here I found this hugely irritating. The action scenes are nail-biting and gruesome, the life-saving bushcraft techniques explored fascinating, the human struggle very real. But did we need the camera to constantly float in mid-shot to one side of characters like a non-corporeal documentarian? It’s impressive to see the camera tracking through a battlefield rapidly switching focus as combatants are offed, but it’s not immersive and just brings you out of the story too much elsewhere.
The fantastical elements of the story and Glass’s tragic family history I found a little forced and unconvincing. I don’t get what the dream sequences were supposed to mean, and the real Glass didn’t have children. For this story the writers have decided this already remarkable man needed a deceased native American wife and mixed race son (Forrest Goodluck) to give him something to shoot for that isn’t carrying a valuable pelt on its back. Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald almost comments directly on this when he admits fur trapping and getting paid for it encompasses his whole life.
Fitzgerald is meant to be a boo-hiss villain throughout, but considering the nightmarish extreme survival situation the characters find themselves in, I found myself agreeing 100% with his view that they should shoot Glass to put him out of his misery and be on their way. There is no room for a gentle touch in such a harsh environment, and you definitely would leave a man behind if it meant the difference between life and death for everyone else. It’s almost as though the writers realised halfway through that we had no rational reason to hate Fitzgerald, that he was the character that made the most sense, so they made him commit cartoonish atrocities to make him more despicable.
The much talked about bear attack scene looks a little out of place. It’s well done, but the effects still look slightly off compared to definitively real surrounding film. At first Glass quite wisely plays dead after his first tussle with tooth and claw, but he then proceeds to shoot the thing as it wanders back to its cubs, causing it to come back and finish the job! Think it through, Mr One-with-Nature.
Probably the most interesting thing about the film is its sound design. The first and last thing we hear over a black screen is Hugh Glass’s laboured breathing. The sounds of nature throughout the film are heightened to the point of discomfort – all to emphasise how unforgiving the natural world can be.
Should Leo win his Oscar? Probably. He should have already won one for THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but the Academy doesn’t like endorsing people playing horrible, if fascinating, human beings. He grew his hair, he spent months in the cold and his performance has a genuine intensity. Should The Revenant win anything else? Probably not, as it works better as an experiment than as a story. SSP