A Review of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant: Blood and Beauty on the American Plains

the revenant

Film: The Revenant
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Primary Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard, Grace Dove, Paul Anderson
US Release Date: 8 Jan 2016

It’s winter on the northern plains of America, and the year is 1823. Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is a scout and guide for a group of fur trappers. The group is led by Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson) and includes a self-interested racist named John Fitzgerald (Hardy). Early in the film, the trappers are ambushed by members of the Arikara tribe, and the majority of them are killed in the ensuing onslaught. Afterwards, those who do escape cannot rest easy, for they know that the Arikara will continue to pursue them.

While trying to find a route through the wilderness that will lead the party of trappers to safety, Glass is brutally mauled by an enraged grizzly. Though he does survive the attack, he is so gravely injured that his eventual recovery seems all but impossible. Fitzgerald suggests that the trappers put Glass out of his misery so that they can travel unencumbered. Instead, Henry decides that some of the men will stay with Glass to care for him until he dies. Fitzgerald, Glass’s Native American son Hawk (Goodluck), and another young man (Poulter) all volunteer for the task.

Instead of caring for Glass as instructed, Fitzgerald tries to convince him to let him kill him. When Hawk realizes what is happening, he tries to stop Fitzgerald, who murders the boy as Glass looks on. Fitzgerald then buries Glass (who is still alive) in a shallow grave and leaves him to die.
Get the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack for The Revenant.

Based in-part on the Michael Punke novel, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is a brutal, bloody, and quasi-poetic survival drama that—regardless of how successful it is as a film—is sure to stick with viewers for some time. Visually stunning and frequently pulse-pounding, the film isn’t 2015’s best, but it is one of the year’s most visceral and overwhelming. Ultimately, The Revenant does suffer from some considerable weaknesses, but it also has enough strengths to more than make up for most of them.

Just over a year ago, I jotted down a short list of some ideas that might one day inspire the aesthetic or direction of a film (were I ever to be involved in the making of one). Part of this list contains the words “Malick meets Refn.” I mention this, because while watching The Revenant, I couldn’t help but feel that Iñárritu has beaten me to the punch. No, the film is not a pure hybrid of the two directors I mentioned, and it’s likely that there isn’t an ounce of Refn in it at all; that said, The Revenant most certainly carries traces of Malick’s influence—many of which come via cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—and it does combine them with a dark, brutally violent, and incredibly tense tale of revenge.

Given just how much of Malick’s style has to do with the visual aspect of his films, its hardly surprising that The Revenant, which was shot by the same person responsible for the camerawork in The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups, has been called “Malickian.” With its captivating and almost reverent depiction of nature and with its willingness to linger longer than expected, the camerawork in The Revenant is sure to remind viewers of Malick, but so will its use of whispery voice over, its long stretches without much dialogue, and its attempts to philosophize. That said, it’s also important to acknowledge that whatever Iñárritu and Lubezki may borrow from Malick, The Revenant is not a Terrence Malick film, because Terrence Malick never made it.

As much noise as has been made about DiCaprio’s work in the film, Lubezki is its real star. Even when the film’s storytelling stumbles, its images continue to impress and to transport. Thanks largely to the film’s cinematography, The Revenant feels almost mythic at times. Nature in the film is beautiful and other-worldly, and the world surrounding the characters is as terrifying and as hostile as it is awe-inspiring. With his cold, blue-tinged images, his graceful camerawork, and his masterful use of natural light, Lubezki brings the North American wilderness to life as few will have seen it before, and he elevates the film considerably while doing so.

Though they are not as dazzling as its cinematography, the performances in The Revenant are also quite strong. As the mutilated, devastated, and vengeful Hugh Glass, DiCaprio gives an intense and fully committed performance. That said (and this probably has to do with the script), Glass never really congeals into a fully-formed character or develops much emotional depth. In a more well-written role, Hardy disappears into his character, and his scenes are some of the most compelling in the film. As Captain Andrew Henry, Gleeson—who seems to show up in just about everything nowadays—continues to build his reputation as an actor to keep an eye on.

With its particular combination of blood, beauty, suffering, survival, and revenge, The Revenant certainly provides an impactful and memorable viewing experience. And yet, as well-executed as certain aspects of the film are, its storytelling is not always effective, and the script is not as well-developed as it could have been.

One of the biggest issues with the film is that it is overlong and contains a number of scenes that are essentially useless. For instance, the dreamy flashbacks and hallucinations showing Glass’s late wife (Dove) distract much more than they fortify. These scenes are meant to give Glass’s character depth by making him more sympathetic and by giving him a tragic back story, but the same could have been accomplished much more economically (and less puzzlingly) with a just few words.

The film also suffers at the hands of its own desire to philosophize, for in the end, The Revenant wants to have something meaningful to say more often than it actually does. There is a difference between inviting viewers to do their own interpreting and between not managing to say much beyond what’s obvious, and The Revenant occasionally lands too close to the latter. Though there are instances when The Revenant does present some ideas worth thinking about—such as the different methods and motivations behind Glass and Fitzgerald’s attempts at survival—it may also leave viewers wondering whether even the filmmakers themselves knew what they wanted it all to mean in the end.

The Revenant is enthralling and intense, and there is no way that I will forget watching it any time soon, but that does not change the fact that is also riddled with problems and is simply not as solid as it could have been.
Order The Revenant on Blu-ray. 

Until Next Time
I saw The Revenant the same day that I saw Carol, and in a number of ways, the two films could not be more different. Yes, they are both powerful and visually strong , but where Carol is delicate, subtle, and gauzy, The Revenant is brutal, visceral, and lofty. Of course, there’s really no reason to compare the two at all, but one could also argue that while Carol is the most feminine film of the 2015 awards season, The Revenant is the most masculine. . . So there’s that.

Thanks so much for reading! After paying to see two films last weekend, I may have to stay away from the theater for a while (or at least, until Anomalisa opens locally at the end of the month). I’ll probably write a “Top Movies of 2015” post around that time as well.

As always, feel free to share any comments or questions that you might have by leaving a comment below. Anyone who is interested can also support Words on Films by donating here.

One thought on “A Review of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant: Blood and Beauty on the American Plains

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s