The Revenant is a remarkable film. Based on a novelization of the life of Hugh Glass, a trapper in the upper Missouri River area, it features some of the most stunning cinematography I’ve seen. The unforgiving landscape is breathtaking and, along with the Native Americans on his tail, the hostile country serves to drive Di Caprio’s Glass onwards through most of the story. This is a story of survival, and Glass’s struggle to survive is a compelling tale, powerfully told through Di Caprio’s performance. He’s ably supported by Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson (who I remember from the movie Dredd, and who I just realized is the son of Irish actor Brendan Gleeson).
It’s inevitable but somewhat tedious that much of the talk about this film revolves around the Academy Awards. It’s obvious that the film was produced and released with the Oscars in mind and some of its weaknesses perhaps stem from that. Di Caprio has been nominated for an Academy Ward (again) and, while his performance is admirable, I hope he gets an Oscar just to get the monkey off his back so it won’t factor into future film choices. Ever since The Departed came out (and he did the whole heartthrob-to-serious-actor thing ten years before Matthew McConaughey), I’ve been a huge fan of Di Caprio’s work. While The Revenant is a good film, its earnestness and ponderous pacing work against it.
Clocking in at over two and a half hours, The Revenant is overlong, stretching what is a fairly simple story into an epic-length movie. This isn’t helped by the fact that most of the dramatic and memorable action takes place inside the first hour, meaning the middle section really drags. It’s not a big problem watching it for the first time, but I suspect if I tried to watch it again the film might lose my interest halfway through.
The film certainly does contain some powerful sequences. The famous ‘bear’ scene is visceral and difficult to watch, and one that will surely go down in cinematic lore. Similarly, the battle-cum-massacre which opens the action is terrifying; for me, it captured the horror of killing in the American West in a way bettered only in the historical novel Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. The film is punctuated by such episodes of extreme violence and brutality, which leave behind some truly haunting imagery of death and humiliation.
As well as its slow pacing, the film suffers from being somewhat one-note. This is a story of grim endurance and pain, and there is no comedy or light-heartedness to be found, or even wit. Just the smallest amount of comic relief in a story like this can make a world of difference, and it doesn’t need to lower the tone. If as bleak a writer as McCarthy can find room for black humour in his dialogue or his characters’ cadence of speech, anyone should be able to; but this is a relentless film. I’m not a big fan of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work–I’ve only seen a couple of his movies, and Birdman didn’t interest me–and I wonder if this humorlessness is characteristic of his films.
The film’s slow pace meant I spent parts of the film comparing it to other great films and novels dealing with the same sort of story, particularly The Last of the Mohicans. First Nations peoples, particularly the Arikara and Pawnee, feature prominently in this film. Living in the UK, I’m at a great remove from what is a hugely complicated and emotive subject, but my impression is that for the most part the film largely conforms to familiar tropes of depicting Native Americans. The Arikara chief who hounds Glass and his companions at the beginning of the film has a solitary motivating factor–finding his kidnapped daughter–and his followers have no agency whatsoever. That said, the film does generally avoid either demonizing or infantilizing the Native Americans; the real villains here are–the French! We should have known. Also, much of the film reminded me of the opening sequences from flawed but under-appreciated Western, Seraphim Falls. This is overall a better film than Seraphim Falls, but that film did capture something about the nature of hunting and survival in the wilderness that The Revenant, for all its portentousness, fails to achieve.
On the whole, as I say, this is a remarkable film, memorable for its cinematography, unwavering violence, and the grimness of its story of survival and revenge. That said, it’s not one I would recommend to everyone, and not one I’m sure I want to witness again.