By: Daniel Reynolds
One of the main subjects of conversation after seeing The Revenant revolved around a simple, blunt question: Did you get it? Well, did you? I don’t know, did I? The it in this case is what director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu must be trying to say with this film. Surely he’s saying something important. His film runs over 150 minutes long and features numerous (numerous) shots of natural beauty coupled with ponderous silences — save for a moody, atmospheric score — which push you to feel and, in turn, think something. The Revenant is an expansive film, but I swear you will exit it wondering if you missed something. Did you get it or what?
Let’s reel this back to the fundamentals. The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who lived in the 1700 and 1800s as a fur trapper, trader, hunter and explorer. Here he’s played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who, it should be said, would not be my first choice to play someone of that period. (But let’s set that aside.) Glass is the primary guide for a band of men wandering the mountains of the American west. They apparently spend their days fur trapping and staving off attacks from the natives. The group is led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), and includes a young man named Bridger (Will Poulter), Glass’ half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and principle antagonist John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, with a perfect southern accent). A blistering raid from the natives at the outset winnows the force of men down to a handful and sets Glass and company on a trek over the mountains to escape further assault and return them to their home fort. Unfortunately for some, things get worse from there.
Yes, all of that is really just preamble, a glorious bit of window dressing aided by Emmanuel Lubezki‘s singular talents as a cinematographer. The Revenant‘s main thrust is much simpler: revenge. After a bear attack leaves Glass near death and unable to defend his son from being murdered, the real mechanics of the film are set in motion. Expressed in these, its plainest terms — desperate men, rugged terrain, quest for survival — the film is deep down, a Western. But not so fast. In a recent interview, Inarritu shrugged off the western label, quickly dismissing it as a genre too small for his prodigious talents. To him, since genre is derived from generic and there is nothing ordinary about his film, it’s a misnomer. To a point, he’s right; The Revenant is a wildly ambitious film that few filmmakers would have the talent and wherewithal to actually make. (Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick being, perhaps, the couple of exceptions.) And truthfully, it’s hard not to salute the guy for going for it — even if he, and Leo, won’t shut up about it. You just wish the film would stop poking you in the ribs to get you to acknowledge the extremity of this commitment.
This is where The Revenant runs into its major problem. I have trouble recalling another film that strains so hard against the very thrilling aspects that make it interesting. Here we are presented with a real-life tale of frontier revenge, as elemental a story as there has ever been. But instead of just, you know, using that and playing it straight, Inarritu gets lost in, oh I don’t know, dreams, religious imagery, the plight of a sad tribe of natives, the cartoonishly evil French (on hand for some good old fashion raping and pillaging), and, of course, reflections on the nature and existence of God. All of this isn’t bad per se, I mean it sure as hell is beautiful to look at (even the scene where Leo crams himself into a horse corpse), but you have to wonder: what’s it supposed to mean? What does any of it mean? Do you get it?
I’ll give you an example of what I did get: Hardy as Fitzgerald, scheming and backing his way into murder. That’s emotion you can grip in your hands. Likewise, some of the images of survival, like a startling scene where DiCaprio cauterizes his own neck wound, are felt like a slap. This is good. And while your mileage may vary on the merits of Leo’s intense performance, he doesn’t hold anything back. There’s a tactile strength to the film that’s hard to resist, the senses coming alive to the experience, even as the film wishes — urges — to engage your mind with these aforementioned larger philosophical ruminations. When Inarritu deigns to spin the wheels of his plot, The Revenant truly does feel like few other films out there. It is worth watching, even through its strain for meaning.
To prove my point, consider the ending. (Hold on, this will be spoiler free!) As you can probably guess, the film eventually finds its way towards a confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald. This is the main emotional through-line of the film, the thing we’re rooting for. As with the rest of the film, Inarritu lays it out with gusto; it’s an incredibly tense and technically astounding action sequence. The Revenant‘s choice of last shot though, centring on that million dollar face of DiCaprio, made me inwardly chuckle. It’s an Art moment, a beat of audience implication, and it appears designed to get the viewer to think about its (and by extension, the film’s) significance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up. Like the rest of The Revenant‘s capital A art moments, there’s no deeper meaning to define. In short, there’s nothing to get.