What are we to make of “The Revenant”? Well, I think the key to understanding this film is to recall the previous film from its director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. That film, “Birdman”, which won the Best Picture Oscar last year, was an artsy film that decried Hollywood’s obsession with making profitable yet empty superhero and spectacle-heavy movies over films with substance. Prior to that film, Inarrito has mostly made artsy films: “Amores Perros” (a sort of Mexican, “Pulp Fiction”-esque film), “21 Grams” (my favorite film of his, an emotionally devastating film about grief), “Babel”, and “Biutiful (unseen by me). So now we have “The Revenant”, a big budget film with a CGI grizzly bear attack (the bear looks pretty good for being CGI) and starring popular mainstream actor Leonardo DiCaprio and co-starring Tom Hardy. On a story level, this movie is as simplistic and mainstream as can be: A man’s son is killed and he is left for dead. Against all odds, he survives to go on a journey to enact his revenge. Add to that story elements which would make this film appeal to audience members who love ‘Murica: frontier-living, action, big sky country, making French people the bad guys when it’s not making minorities (a Native American tribe called the Arikara) the bad guys. It’s very easy to imagine the “American Sniper”-ized version of this story that could have been made.
However, we have a director who makes art films. We should know better than to expect him to make a mainstream revenge film for Red State audiences. Well, while “The Revenant” may be simple on a story-level, it is not on its level of artistry. The film plays like the work of Terrence Malick, with long passages featuring no dialogue, and many expansive and beautiful shots of nature. Inexplicable dream sequences with vague dialogue that portends to be heavy with symbolism and meaning pervade the film. At two and a half hours, I imagine those Red Staters would be fidgeting in their chairs after the 700th shot of snowy vistas and icicles hanging off of a tree. Dream sequences where DiCaprio’s dead Native American wife hovers above him seem to add little beyond ambience and a sense of loss and sorrow to the film. “The Revenant” often feels like it’s trying to be the new “The Thin Red Line” or “The New World”, but less heavy and Kubrick-influenced than Malick’s “Tree of Life” was.
So we have a film with maybe 100 minutes of plot material stretched out with artsy nature shots and passages of silence into 150 minutes. Honestly, it is not necessary for a film with this simple of a plot to be this long, which means that it is this length by choice and not necessity. The full plot is this: DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a fur trader who has gone through unincorporated Louisiana territory with a U.S. army regiment to acquire pelts for sale and trade. Their regiment is best upon by a Native American tribe who believe the regiment is responsible for kidnapping the tribal chief’s daughter. Glass, his half-native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and some other make it out alive. One particularly antsy fur trader is Fitzgerald (Hardy) who doesn’t like Glass, and doesn’t like Native Americans since, well, they tried to scalp him once. One morning, while out hunting, Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear almost to the point of death. Staying behind to help Glass puts the rest of the regiment in danger, so they decide to go on, but Hawk, Fitzgerald, and a young soldier named Bridger (Will Poulter) stay behind to watch after Glass in the event that Glass can recover. Fitzgerald only does so for the promise of reward from the army since, well, the regiment had to stash the pelts, which would have been the source of Fitzgerald’s payday, when running from the tribe.
Fitzgerald, getting antsy, tries to smother Glass to death, is caught by Hawk, and kills Hawk. Fitzgerald tells Bridger that Hawk ran off, and later lies and says that the tribe is hot on their trail, forcing them to abandon Glass to die to save themselves. Glass survives, driven by revenge for his son.
There’s a common theme in the film of theft. Characters in this film steal money, horses, people, food, supplies, weapons, and just about anything else that is able to be stolen. Much as “Hateful Eight” was seemingly about American being based on lies, “The Revenant” seems to argue that America is based on theft. The chief of the tribe even argues that America itself was stolen. The director, being from Mexico City and not America, is likely to agree with that sentiment. Honestly, this movie is about stealing as much as it is about revenge or survivalism.
Okay, so the message that America is based on theft isn’t new. The plot itself is common and unspectacular. So why make this film if you’re Inarritu? Why make THIS film in THIS way, so artsy and putting your crew through subzero temperatures for months on end to get perfect, un-CGI-altered shots of beautiful, ice-covered vistas? Well, towards the end of the film, Fitzgerald is finally caught by Glass and he says to Glass “You came all this way for your revenge. Well, I hope you enjoy it then,” or something to that effect. I suspect this is a criticism for the rubes in the audience who find themselves sitting through this film simply for the brutal, bloody revenge ending. The last shot of the film is DiCaprio looking directly into the camera, at the audience, with a look that almost says “Are you satisfied now?”
So if we take this and remember “Birdman” before it, my guess is that “The Revenant” is Inarritu’s way of wrapping vegetables in sugar for a mainstream audience. A mainstream audience will not sit through an art house movie. They especially won’t sit through a Terrence Malick art house film. Just as a mainstream audience will sit through “Avengers: Age of Ultron” but not “Birdman”. However, if one gives the audience a popular, mainstream actor (DiCaprio), and a mainstream friendly revenge plot, then perhaps they will be willing to sit through a 150+ minute art house film, even if they walk in not knowing its an art house film. Maybe some of them will even like it, despite themselves and against all odds. That’s what I think the point of “The Revenant” is: to get uneducated moviegoers with poor, mainstream tastes to watch an art house film, and maybe even like it and give them a more educated palate for film. Will it work? Well, “The Revenant” grossed a healthy $39 million and received B+ from Cinemascore, which polls audiences leaving a film on opening night, so who knows?
This film is worth seeing solely for the visuals. This is one goddamned gorgeous film to look at. The story and characters are fairly weak and the message is hackneyed and not delivered with any real bite, but it’s a captivating film nonetheless. There are some sequences that are breathtaking, such as the original attack on the army regiment by the tribe, which looks like it was done in a single, highly choreographed take with a shorter frames-per-second framerate. Another scene of Glass riding his horse away from the tribe off a cliff is a triumph. There are individual shots in this film, and seemingly single-take sequences that are virtuoso in their execution. This is not a subtly directed film, but it is an extremely well-directed film and the fact that it draws attention to itself is a credit to this particular film instead of a demerit.
I can’t say this is a great film, and if it wins Best Picture it probably won’t quite deserve that award. However, this is a fantastically made piece of work and, well, if it makes some rubes enhance their film tastes and stop thinking films like “Furious 7” are good filmmaking then, well, all the better. B+.