The year of Domhnall Gleeson and Tom Hardy comes to a close as director Alejandro González Iñárritu channels his best Terrence Malick impersonation. A balanced mix of a classic revenge story and a man versus nature fable, The Revenant follows the mostly true story of Hugh Glass, who narrowly escapes death and seeks revenge for the murder of his half-Pawnee son (in an age when native Americans still had a hand over the European settlers). The movie is a sprawling two-and-a-half hour thriller that belongs to star Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Glass, co-star Will Poulter, as the film’s only character who behaves according to a moral compass, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who re-teams with Iñárritu following last year’s Birdman.
Birdman was most notable for appearing to be filmed as one nonstop shot, a tool used in many of Revenant‘s scenes, which often go up to five minutes without any cuts. When cuts do come, they’re sometimes jarring, but that doesn’t keep the film’s opening battle scene from being one of the most remarkably shot sequences in film history. Normally, if a character shoots a gun, a filmmaker would immediately jump to whomever the gun shot at. Here, following Lubezki’s steady hand, a gun is shot and the camera slowly turns to where the character was aiming, missing some of the action in between. The effect of this is thrilling, although no more thrilling than a horse riding by and the camera latching onto the horse and riding with it. The Revenant is filled with similar feats of movie magic, while Lubezki continues his yearly trend of staking his claim at creating the most beautiful film of the decade, from Malick’s The Tree of Life to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Yet as impressive as the camerawork is throughout, there’s a mixed bag of shots that enhance the viewing experience and shots that distract from it, such as a new lens or angle being used for no apparent reason at all.
Lubezki’s time working with Malick looms heavily over this film, most notably Malick’s own Native American tale The New World, but something Iñárritu has always accomplished on his own is coaxing strong performances from his actors. Nearly each of his films has received acting Oscar nominations, which will be no different this year with Leonardo Dicaprio, who gives such a realistic portrayal of the plight of Hugh Glass that he seems to truly be freezing out in the cold, covered in bloody scars from a bear fight. Yet while he is tasked with carrying most of the narrative, We’re the Millers‘ Will Poulter gets a chance to show off his dramatic range as the most innocent and righteous traveler Jim Bridger, even though this and plenty other details are historically inaccurate. Elsewhere, Domhnall Gleeson gives possibly his best performance from a busy year starring in multiple of 2015’s best movies: Ex Machina, The Force Awakens, and Brooklyn.
Most characters get at least one line that’s played for laughs, which is a nice reprieve in a movie that’s otherwise so direly stark and uncompromising, but the movie’s also littered with unintentionally funny moments. For example, when Glass pulls himself out of a grave after being buried alive, Dicaprio’s acting is almost identical to the scene where he’s tripping on Lemmon quaaludes from The Wolf of Wall Street. So many “dramatic” moments are overstated, they nearly fall into parody. This is especially true of Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald, the entirely unsympathetic antagonist who killed Glass’ son. Every line he spits out is laughably ridiculous; let us not forget, one of things that made his performance so great in Mad Max: Fury Road was how little he spoke. The fault here also goes to the pedestrian script, co-written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith. There’s nary a conversation that rings true, and too much of Glass’ story has been adapted to fit cinema’s most obvious tropes. Like Birdman before it, The Revenant even ends with an ambiguous final shot, an annoying trend in recent years as seen in the work of Christopher Nolan. Other technical aspects are just as bad, if not worse, like the sloppy voiceover recordings for the Native Americans. It’s downright embarrassing, as is the musical score, which adds nothing to the proceedings, sounds like it might have been recorded with synths instead of real strings, and shows up sparingly enough that the movie would have been better without it altogether.
The Revenant is worth seeing for the uniquely beautiful cinematography and Dicaprio’s performance–him losing the Oscar this year would be as much a shame as Michael Keaton losing for Birdman last year, (so stay out of this Eddie Redmayne)–but there’s a point where the film feels like the same thing over and over again: dead person, dead animal, pretty nature B-roll, dead person, dead animal, pretty nature B-roll, etc. The few understated moments include a flashback where a bird flies out of Glass’ wife’s chest, and a scene where a Pawnee is found hung by settlers the day after he’d shown incredible kindness to a white man. If these hint at Iñárritu being the “next Terrence Malick” as he’s seemingly so desperate to become, he’s surely still a few movies away from proving it.
3 out of 5 stars