As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass painfully struggles through director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s harsh and unforgiving world, desperately fighting for the next moment of glorious relief through a gulf of slow and painful horrors, you can’t help but think to yourself, ‘I feel you, Leo’. For all its great acting, incredible sense of atmosphere and gut-wrenching suspense, The Revenant is a tough watch. In a way, it probably should be; this is an exhausting experience for the characters (and the cast playing them), and what The Revenant does best is making you feel like you’re down in the trenches with them. But there’s no denying the pacing and some (I hate to say it) indulgent directing are a chore to sit through.
Which is a goddamn shame, because if you shave about 40 or so minutes off the runtime, this could easily have been the tense and gritty masterpiece we were all hoping for.
The Revenant‘s plot (partially based on Michael Punke’s 2002 biography The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge) is extremely elemental. In the early nineteenth Century, frontiersmen Hugh Glass, fleeing a raid by Pawnee native Americans with the surviving members of his expedition, is brutally mauled by a bear and left in the care of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and his half-cast son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), as the rest head off to the settlement for safety. After a scuffle leads to Fitzgerald stabbing and killing Hawk, Glass is left to die in the wilderness, forcing him to crawl, beg and kill to survive long enough as he traverses the merciless frontier to face the man who took away his son.
Not to take anything away from The Revenant‘s excellent (though small) cast, but the film’s biggest star is undoubtedly masterful cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. After previously scoring an Academy Award in his last collaboration with the director (Birdman), Iñárritu gives Lubezki free reign and in turn provides his most ambitious work yet. His signature long takes and ghostly, invasive camerawork are – as expected – utilized excellently here, but a newfound fascination with low perspectives and wide-angled lenses add frantic confusion to the viewer. Battle breaks out all around as you focus, through impossible shots, on one single element as chaos erupts in your periphery. It feels like a cut-scene from a highly produced video game – and I mean that in the best possible way. The action in The Revenant is beyond immersive; you feel every gasp for air, every violent blow, and the cold and punishing crawl to reach some raw, discarded flesh for sustenance. This film is at its best when suspense and dread take hold of you, and more often than not, when that happens it’s Lubezki’s camera you have to thank.
Beyond how visually arresting the camerawork wizardry is, Iñárritu and Lubezki ensure almost every isolated frame of The Revenant is a thing of beauty. Yes, the film’s ecosystem is ruthless and violent; it’s also unspeakably grand and romantic. There are a few instances where uncanny CGI animals disturb your sense of awe, but these are thankfully few. Just watching the water rush through the flooded trees in the film’s opening moments is enough to make you fall in love with Iñárritu’s portrait of the frontier; the ominous soundscape hinting at inevitable danger only magnifying its dangerous allure.
Sadly, Iñárritu fell a little too in love with what he captures and is unwilling to leave a sizeable chunk of unnecessary screen time on the cutting room floor. It is indeed a beautiful world he has brought to life, and god knows the entire production nearly killed themselves trying to do so, but there are just so many shots in The Revenant that communicate nothing new to the audience. When the plot does move along or we are being treated to some of The Revenant‘s brilliant and suspenseful action (with a special mention going to Leo’s aforementioned tangle with a bear) the film is nearly without fault, but as you get deeper and deeper into the runtime the long haul separating these moments feels progressively less worthwhile. By the time the final confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald kicks off, rather than exhilaration, you feel exhausted and relieved to have finally gotten to the end of the road.
While making The Revenant‘s leads simplistic and archetypal was the right choice for the story they wanted to tell, the dry cast does make these pacing problems all the worse. As Glass is battered repeatedly by the world around him, he becomes more and more animalistic, and the film turns into a very primal story about survival and revenge rather than an in-depth biography. It’s fascinating to watch, but when the most eloquent moment of the film is Tom Hardy mumbling incoherently about a squirrel (a scene I loved, for the record), you’re not depending on strong character interaction to carry you through the film’s arduous length.
Make no mistake; DiCaprio and the rest of the cast are nonetheless excellent in their various roles. DiCaprio is rabid and feral by the end of his transformation, so broken he is almost begging to be put down. He’s always been an actor unafraid of getting his hands dirty for a part, but Glass proves his most laborious and visually painful role to date. Hardy’s Fitzgerald, while certainly the film’s antagonist, is intriguingly not made out to be that much of a monster. Though he is selfish and undoubtedly a bit of an asshole, his biggest crime is ultimately screwing up when put in an already messed-up situation. Given how cruel this world is shown to be, there’s a temptation to see him as a victim when he’s finally confronted, creating some much needed complexity in the film’s final moments, even if it does perhaps come a little too late.
Despite the heights The Revenant reaches, Iñárritu proves in this case to be a director unwilling to kill his darlings, and the film is tragically flawed as a result. If you can get past the slow pace and exhausting material, there are some incredibly rewarding elements that will linger days after you leave the cinema. But given how challenging I found the film, despite how much I adore The Revenant‘s intermittent intensity and lethally gorgeous world, I suspect there’s only a select audience I could wholeheartedly recommend it to.