‘The Revenant’ (2015) cannot bear its own weight
With Leo officially in the Oscar record books, we can all rest easy. But it took “The Revenant” (2015), a film plagued with budgetary problems, threats of hypothermia, cast injuries and a fired producer to get him there. Alejandro González Iñárritu has a history of torturous films (“Biutiful” (2010) and “Birdman” (2014)) that study the processes of human will and endurance. His films are inflections of this central theme, and “The Revenant” applies his aesthetic to the 1820s American frontier, before Manifest Destiny was a national rallying cry and the road to expansion was paved in blood.
The film opens on a team of fur trappers as they nearly escape a Native American raid, filmed in the long-take ballet style of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The trappers must then carry what’s left of their cargo on their backs through the unforgiving wilderness. After a grizzly bear mauls a lone Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (a scalped and garble-tongued Tom Hardy) murders Glass’ son, the team makes the difficult decision to abandon the near-dead Glass. In a time and place at which humanity was just another link in the food chain and survival of the fittest is dogma, the unscrupulously cunning Fitzgerald leaves him for dead. Like a frontier version of “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) Glass drags his carcass out of his would-be grave and pursues Fitzgerald for the rest of the film with machine-like ferocity, fueled by a sense of cosmic retribution. Having suffered the destruction of his body and his spirit, Glass exists in the abyss, and plans on dragging Fitzgerald down with him.
A personified primal scream, Glass devours buffalo liver, sleeps inside a horse carcass, survives a vertiginous freefall, patches gashes with gunpowder and fire and, of course, wrestles and kills a mother grizzly. DiCaprio distills Glass’s complexities into his face, with pain expressed only as a palimpsest beneath his icy mien. Here, Iñárritu captures the central beauty of cinema: the face is a frontier we will never tire of exploring. However, the narrative drive becomes mere one-upmanship, as Iñárritu must formulate increasingly shocking conceits for Glass to endure like a frustrated Jigsaw toying with an indestructible captive. The idiom mirrors this year’s other 19th century bloodbath, “The Hateful Eight” (2015), with both films reveling in their tortures. In this Jobian epic, only the hanging of Glass’ Pawnee brother affects, where human nature challenges Mother Nature’s own senselessness. Glass becomes a reactionist, a receptical for nature’s brutality, which leaves his characterization remarkably barren. Besides the fairly hackneyed flashbacks and hallucinations of his deceased wife, Glass has no texture; he lacks an objective correlative since his extreme emotions are underdeveloped and left unsupported by the narrative.
Instead, Iñárritu and Lubezki spotlight nature as the central star with interspersed images somewhere between National Geographic and Terrence Malick. These flourishes of artistic sublimity similarly tire after overuse, and their grandeur slowly devolves into grandiosity with the spirituality of a turgid Instagram account. While their postcard beauty provides respite from Glass’ Herculean trials, they feel manufactured, preprogrammed for awe, exploiting nature’s architecture to induce a form of metaphysical wonderment. The visual sophistication thus borders on sophism, as Lubezki’s long-take aesthetic and beatific frames fail to generate a primal, visceral communion with nature.
Ultimately, the epic scope of the film’s narrative daunts the denouement between Glass and Fitzgerald. After battling a grizzly bear, Native Americans, a suicidal fall and threat of hypothermia, how can Fitzgerald compete? Perhaps the film began too powerfully and failed to sustain its explosive start, or relied too heavily on its imagery and shock value to generate the complexities of Iñárritu former works. When the film strove for shock and awe, I often felt boredom. This is how Glass’s world ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.