2.5 / 5 stars
I imagine that somewhere across the Rocky Mountains, Leonardo DiCaprio’s titular character in The Revenant is still trudging through ice and snow, face and lips chapped to a crisp, grunting in pain and whispering his demand for revenge. The key word there is still. Because director Alejandro Iñárritu – a man who must love the critic’s word “ambitious” – devotes so much time to illustrating this scenario, over and over, I thought it would go on forever.
Relatively speaking, a 156-minute running time isn’t that long if the film’s journey warrants it. But when a movie of that length starts strong and then narrows its scope, it must have a sharp, interesting point of view from which to see. Iñárritu, who co-wrote the script with horror writer Mark L. Smith, thinks that interest comes in oversold glimpses of Native American imagery and increasingly impossible survivalist challenges. Not only is it all an annoying contrast to The Revenant’s excellent introduction, it’s overdramatic to a point of narrative paralysis. Iñárritu would rather have DiCaprio’s Mr. Glass crawl across the ice desperately for two minutes than identify something in his travel to make those two minutes more compelling – for both him and us.
Allow me to fill in some blanks. DiCaprio plays an 1800s fur trapper who becomes a liability for his team after getting mauled by a bear (if you’ve seen the jokes about the bear, I assure you the scene is gripping in both action and visual effects). Tom Hardy, unrecognizable for some time, plays Fitzgerald, a trapper who agrees to watch over the nearly dead Glass for a price, with no intentions of keeping him alive or treating his teenage Indian son (first-time actor Forrest Goodluck) with any protection or respect.
Fitzgerald does some bad things, ditches Glass in a ditch, and sets out for home. Leaving Glass to somehow claw his way up and out, and get on to some revenanting, as the case may be.
What follows is a disappointing change in tone from the film’s opening sequence, in which a Native American group successfully sneak-attacks a larger group of white traders. Iñárritu employs his taste for the long, uninterrupted take to follow the action – as he does for essentially all of Birdman – but this is a complicated, confusing, violent battle, a setting where the single take works incredibly well. Plenty of critics have called it showy and self-serving, but I think it adds authenticity and vitality to the sequence. It’s the rest of The Revenant that’s showy and self-serving.
DiCaprio’s performance has been singled out as superlative, but what you’ve heard is true. He’s very good here, needing to carry the acting weight as a solo player for long stretches, but he’s given more heart and texture to a half-dozen other films. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is in line for his third consecutive Oscar, but it would appear voters are more attracted to technical prowess than visual output (I’d argue that fellow nominee Robert Richardson expressed more in the snow for The Hateful Eight). And Iñárritu seems to be wooing Hollywood with The Drama of It All, convincing viewers that if it’s serious, and it looks treacherous, it must be great. Not true.
Keep crawling, Leo. Keep crawling.