By Josh Melo
The Revenant (Review)
Visually stunning, viscerally satisfying but emotionally blunt. The Revenant is filled with beautiful imagery juxtaposed with brutal action brought to life by award winning performances. However, the emotional beats weaved through the grisly frontier goings on fail to resonate, making everything on screen feel hollow. While a cinematic feat, it falls just short of being named “Best Picture”.
Transporting us back to the 19th century, The Revenant follows a group of American fur trappers, led by legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leo DiCaprio), braving natures harsh impulse during the American winter. The company’s fortunes take a turn for the worse as their camps are brutally attacked by a revenge seeking party of Native Americans. During their frantic escape attempt, Hugh Glass is ferociously beaten and mortally wounded by a grizzly bear.
Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) orders Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), along with Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), to stay with Glass and provide him with a proper burial when the time comes. Bad turns to worse when fear and greed get the better of Fitzgerald, who murders Glass’ son in front of him while tricking Bridger into abandoning their guide and leaving him for dead. But Glass perseveres. Clawing tooth and nail out of his grave, defying all probability, Glass makes his way through the unforgiving elements to exact vengeance upon the cowardly Fitzgerald.
Coming off of the massive success that was Birdman, a critic may choose to rave about Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s expert direction (which is true) or laud the plethora of award worthy performances present in The Revenant (which there are) but when looking at the full package that is the film, I can’t help but feel that something is missing. Leo’s performance is hands down one of his best, possibly even good enough to nab him that elusive Oscar. The long takes bathed in natural light add an ambience few films have matched. Yet the attempts at emotional resonance fail to impress. At times, the film feels like a Ferris wheel more so than a roller coaster. You get the adrenaline pumping action beats followed by more intimate moments of reflection, but in the end you’re just going in circles.
That being said, Inarritu’s style of direction deserves myriad praise. Mirroring the long single takes of Birdman, he truly captures the splendor of the American wilderness while at the same time depicting the frantic and visceral experience that was the frontier lifestyle. The opening attack sequence is one of the most gorgeous action sequences I’ve ever seen. Forget blockbuster extravagance, the sheer intensity of the shoot combined with the evocative performances from the entire cast make for a scene that I won’t son forget.
As has been said, each actor in The Revenant is truly tremendous. Domhnall Gleeson combines his awkward charm from Ex Machina with spurts of adrenaline-fueled courage to create the goodhearted yet inept leader. Will Poulter’s turn as the young Jim Bridger is just as excellent. A young frontiersman looking for fortune, he is quickly shown the reality of the world, Poulter shows that confusion perfectly. Little need be said about Tom Hardy. The man is gold in almost any roll and he brings his usual “A” game here. In a film focused almost completely on DiCaprio’s Glass, Hardy manages to make Fitzgerald one of the more nuanced characters of the film. In all honesty, Hardy’s performance may be just as worthy of an Oscar as DiCaprio’s.
Which brings us to the star of the piece. Spending most of his screen time alone, Leonardo DiCaprio is magnetic. An almost entirely physical performance, DiCaprio fully commits to the role creating a memorable, yet disturbing enactment. Imagine The Wolf of Wall Street’s infamous Quaalude scene (minus the hilarity), now drag that physicality out for around 3 hours. Yet, aside from the physical element of the piece, there is little else to Hugh Glass. The awards buzz for Leo is well earned, but when looking at the film as a whole, this creates a glaring issue.
That issue being the narrative of The Revenant. All flash and little substance, the film prioritizes beauty and action while forgetting to add an emotional anchor. The story of Hugh Glass is a simple one, yet his tale of vengeance is often pushed to the side in favor of shockingly violent animal attacks, rapes and a number of other equally disturbing visuals. At times the film feels content to let you helplessly witness this man go through hell without even hinting at respite. It gets to a point where I said to myself, “OK. I get it, he’s been through some shit, let’s move on.” Inarritu includes a number of metaphorical vision sequences to help endear Glass to us and break up the near constant suffering of our protagonist but these visions feel out of place amongst the rest of the film. Instead of adding that emotive element, it distracts and confuses.
In that lack of emotion comes the second major issue, the finale. During an expertly crafted action beat between Glass and Fitzgerald, there is a moment of clarity. This moment feels wholly unearned and, in a way, undermines the epic nature of Glass’ prior ordeals. After traveling and witnessing this mans grueling (maybe even too long) journey, it comes to a close in a manner that fails to satisfy.
When it all comes together, The Revenant is masterfully shot and a tour de force when it comes to acting. Surprisingly brutal in its action, yet infinitely beautiful in its instants of serenity, The Revenant ultimately fails when it tries to tie the two together. While definitely worthy of your time, when it comes to being “Best Picture”, I lean toward no.
Overall The Revenant gets an 8/10
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