So it’s Oscar season again and all the newspapers, blogs and news sites are banging on about the big awards films being thrown out around this time, whether it’s Jennifer Lawrence trying to pass for forty, Eddie Redmayne donning his latest outfit of exaggerated physical tics bearing the name of a real person, or Leonardo DiCaprio being raped by a bear. That last one’s not actually accurate but was what largely drew my attention to The Revenant, despite Alejandro Iñárritu’s name plastered all over it like a giant, wailing pretension alarm. In interviews the storied director said “I don’t consider [my] film a Western, Western is in a way a genre, and the problem with genres is that it comes from the word ‘generic’, and I feel that this film is very far from generic,” which is an interesting opinion since his finished product is about as generic and uninspired a revenge story as exists in cinema.
The Revenant is adapted from the novel of the same name, a loose retelling of the story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper who clawed his way through the American wilderness after being left for dead by his friends following a bear attack. The story as it’s told in the movie is that after the mauling Leonardo DiCaprio is left behind by his party, with only cartoon villain Tom Hardy (wielding an equally cartoonish accent) and his half-Indian son (who exists only so Hardy can kill him and run off) for company. After Hardy’s done the deed he throws DiCaprio in a shallow open grave, and much of the remaining runtime is spent watching DiCaprio crawl his way across the frozen Canadian tundra in a way not so much reminiscent of The Grey as of Homer Simpson’s attempt to jump Springfield Gorge.
A few subplots are thrown in, with an ongoing feud between a Native American tribe and some French soldiers crossing paths with our hero from time to time, but overall the film is shockingly dramatically inert. DiCaprio is the only character with any depth, and about eighty minutes worth of plot, character and theme are stretched over twice that length, leading to a largely forgettable movie that drags interminably. It’s actually hard to find much of interest to talk about unless you find DiCaprio’s gritted teeth face inherently interesting. This lack of effective drama also leaves the violence largely bereft of weight, causing me to laugh at the bloodshed and dismemberment instead of being in any way horrified.
For all that’s been made of the film’s technical achievements they don’t feel in service of much. It’s superficially pretty but many shots serve no purpose besides trying to ape Terrence Malick, and the much-publicised filming with natural light is undercut by the constant fisheye photography making it feel remarkably artificial. Iñárritu also tries to return to the long takes he used in Birdman, but while he clearly wants to be Alfonso Cuaron he lacks one of Cuaron’s most important talents in that field, that of knowing when to end a long take for dramatic effect. Whereas the famous tour of the warzone in Children of Men and Gravity’s eighteen-minute opening shot end in a way that propels the central drama of the moment to the forefront, Iñárritu’s takes keep going until they just kind of stop, creating a film full of weirdly inconsistent editing.
Heaven’s Gate is the obvious comparison here, another prestige Western by a prima donna director whose ever more ridiculous demands lead it way over budget. But while The Revenant shares that film’s visual spendor and distension of a thin plot and central theme that’s nowhere near as deep as it thinks it is, in the end Heaven’s Gate is just a very, deeply okay, if pretty, film while The Revenant is outright terrible, an interminable, pretentious slog only tolerable if you can laugh at brutal violence (and the brief moment where the bear appears to have sodomised DiCaprio). So it’s an almost certain shoe-in for Best Picture in a month or so.