Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant was nominated this week for a Best Picture Oscar, and I went to see it today hoping it was better than I’ve been hearing. Unfortunately, it’s exactly as I’ve been hearing.
The problem with The Revenant, if you want to call it that, is that it’s a good adventure tale dressed up like an epic.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio (in an Oscar nominated performance) as Hugh Glass, a real-life frontiersman who lived in the time of frontier heroes like Jim Bridger, with his own true-life adventures that read like tall tales. DiCaprio is solid in the role, which called for very little memorization of lines. What sounds DiCaprio made were mostly in the form of grunts and heavy breathing, and dressed in a thick bear skin pull-over and sporting a scraggly beard and long hair, he looks more like an animal than the suave Gatsby-esque figure we’re used to seeing.
The story opens in a flashback of the savage murder of Glass’ wife, a Pawnee, and the mutilation of their son’s face by white soldiers. Her whispered words of love and wisdom serve as a kind of frontier Greek chorus as Glass makes his way through this story.
The story’s present is years after the massacre and finds Glass and his son Hawk working as guides for American fur trappers in Wyoming in the early-1800’s. As Glass and his son hunt for food, their party is attacked by Ree’s seeking the daughter of their chief.
The action sequences are expertly shot, putting you in the middle of the action. The violence is depicted so realistically that blood spatters the lens at one point. Arrows pierce necks, bullets open up holes in bodies, knives puncture abdomens. And blood flows in nearly every scene.
Glass and Hawk make it back to their party and help the survivors escape to their flatboat, which provides temporary relief from attack.
During all of this, we meet Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy (in an Oscar nominated role), a cruel fur trapper who is a tough man among tough men. Of course, he makes it back to the boat without so much of a scratch, cursing and complaining about all the pelts they had to leave behind – no doubt a comment on the boundless greed of American expansionism.
Once they’ve gotten out of earshot of their attackers, Glass recommends abandoning the boat, which is sure to be attacked downstream, and opting for an overland route back to the safety of their fort of origin.
Fitzgerald hates the idea and argues strenuously against it, discounting Glass’ coolly articulated explanation of them being sitting ducks. Their captain, played by Domhnall Gleeson, sides with Glass and orders the boat ashore at the next logical spot.
Fitzgerald keeps up his bitching and complaining until the captain orders him to knock it off. This only shifts his target, but not his tone as he starts in on Glass, asking him if it was true that he shot and American officer in defense of an Indian woman (Glass’ own wife, we learn later). Glass refuses to engage the man.
This sets up the central conflict between Glass and Fitzgerald, two men who openly dislike one another.
When Glass is mauled by a bear a few mornings later, in a scene that is amazingly shot and performed, it’s Fitzgerald who argues strenuously against attempting to haul nearly dead carcass over the mountains. When the captain finally relents, and asks for volunteers to stay with Glass until he dies(along with the real-life Jim Bridger and Hawk), to see he is properly buried, Fitzgerald agrees after a handsome payday is offered. All this is done in full view of Glass, who is injured but conscious.
Later, when Fitzgerald is tired of waiting, he tries to bargain with Glass to let him end his life. When Hawk interrupts this plan, Fitzgerald kills him in a struggle, which is again played out in full view of Glass, who can do nothing but grunt and cry.
When Fitzgerald lies to Bridger, in order to get hi to abandon Glass, the remainder of the movie is the struggle for Glass to literally claw his way back to civilization to exact his vengeance on Fitzgerald.
Against all odds, Glass relies on his training and a single-minded determination to overcome obstacle after obstacle. Cold weather, lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of weapons for protection and an improbably crowded wilderness filled with predatory men are all dealt with in an improvisational manner that would Jason Bourne proud.
Fitzgerald and Bridger make it back to the fort, just after the captain and the others, and as promised, he’s paid his bounty for doing the honorable thing. Not wanting young Bridger to go un-rewarded for his duty, the captain gives him another share even though he’s paid the original to Fitzgerald. Bridger, in a fit of conscience, leaves it with the captain and storms out of the meeting.
Glass finally does make it back to the fort, where his return is announced with enough warning that Fitzgerald can break into the captain’s safe and sneak off for Texas with a small fortune.
The final act of the movie sees a rejuvenated Glass setting off with the captain to finish what he started, challenging his wife’s haunting reminders to leave vengeance to God.
Everything about this film is done superbly, from the fine cast to the extraordinary cinematography to the special effects of the frontier violence. There’s not a false note in the whole movie, which begs the question – “Why did I walk away feeling like there was something missing?”
Again, I think that the story just wasn’t big enough to support the great ambition of Iñárritu and his team.
The first evidence of this lies in the flashback sequences and the voice-overs. My guess is that they weren’t in the first draft of the script, but were added to give Glass’ struggle depth and universality that, although they worked, just didn’t elevate the story.
Compare The Revenant to Jeremiah Johnson, and you’ll see what I mean. Jeremiah Johnson, similarly, was the story of a frontiersman in roughly the same time period whose family is similarly butchered. But what elevates the Redford classic to the level of epic is the framing of Johnson’s story against that of the culture from which he’s escaping from and into. Jeremiah Johnson is a densely layered story that works first as an adventure, then as social commentary and finally as epic.
All this is not to diminish The Revenant. If it wasn’t for the aforementioned Oscar nominations, I probably wouldn’t belabor the above points. But because it has been nominated for so many awards, it’s impossible not to think of it in those terms.
I look forward to seeing the remainder of the nominated films to see where The Revenant ranks, but for now, I’m guessing it’s not this year’s Best Picture.