Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest offering sees yet another story ‘based on true events’ brought to life on the big screen. This time it’s ‘inspired by’ the true story of frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass.
When their expedition is attacked, a US Army sponsored fur trapping party look to experienced frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get them safely home. But when Hugh is mauled by a bear his injuries and with the harsh winter terrain against them, the party is forced to split up, leaving Glass and his son in the care of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). But Fitzgerald has his own agenda and, having murdered Glass’ son, tricks Bridger into leaving Glass to perish. Betrayed and left to die, Glass must traverse the hostile landscape, overcoming predators, hostile natives and the elements to take his revenge.
Iñárritu’s film is undeniably beautiful to look at. The decision to film only using natural light may cause a few exposure issues in the early, heavily wooded scenes of the film but it’s generally a triumph, shot after magnificent shot looking like a lavish nature documentary – a credit to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Unfortunately, the exquisite nature photography is frequently interrupted by a harsh, grisly and sadistic Western. The film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the violence and injury detail of early 19th century combat. There’s a similarly gritty realism brought to bear on the unrelenting harshness of daily life and the survivalist existence of the trappers and tribespeople is explored to a degree which would give even Ray Mears pause for thought, even if its dedication to unremitting seriousness sometimes tipped the audience I saw it with into uncomfortable laughter. “The Revenant” is nature and red in tooth and claw and the savagery isn’t just contained to or inflicted on the animal kingdom. There’s a vicious streak running through the film which revels in the blood and guts, almost fetishizing the brutality, violence and butchery.
The grubby and hirsute cast are largely indistinguishable and eminently disposal to arrow, bullet or axe apart from the four principle performers. While Tom Hardy – who debuts his latest unintelligible mumble/growl vocal performance – and DiCaprio are likely to get the lion’s share of the notices, it’s two of the supporting actors who give the more interesting performances. Will Poulter is excellent as the young Jim Bridger, a frontiersman who will go on to create his own legend while Domhnall Gleeson is almost unrecognisable as the gruff and world-wearily authoritative Captain Henry – a world away from his previous whimsical roles in such fare as “About Time” and “Frank” or his scenery-chewing grandstanding in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.
Much like Iñárritu’s last movie had an alternative title (“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”, so too should “The Revenant”: “The Passion Of The Leo”. DiCaprio pants and grunts and wheezes and grimaces his way through a tortuous two and a half hours of horrific injuries, desperate survival challenges and guttural, wordless performance. The script seems constructed to deliberately and wilfully put DiCaprio’s Glass repeatedly through the wringer – to an almost Jobian degree – whether or not it fits with his character. He’s hailed as an expert tracker and experienced frontiersman but is largely responsible for his group being decimated early in the film, fails to detect an approaching bear and is constantly taken by surprise throughout the rest of the film. The heavy handed metaphorical approach to his character lends the film a repetitive motif as Glass seems to meet his death only to rise again so many times it starts to become cliché. It’s an undeniably powerful performance but it just feels like such a nakedly ambitious Oscar grab that it distracts from the film. The last pleading look in Leo’s eyes as the film finally fades to black may as well have been subtitled: ‘Forgive the Academy, they know not what they do’.
It’s unlikely to be on PETA’s top ten of 2016 nor will it appear on mine. The drama that should flow from Glass’ quest for revenge and justice is suffocated by a glacial pace and an opaque and misfocused storytelling approach. There’s no doubting DiCaprio’s commitment to the role and the film, but while “The Revenant” is technically impressive and artistically imposing, it’s so busy revelling in the horror and bleakness of it all that it fails to make much of an emotional impact or have anything to say.