The Revenant (2015)

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson, Will Poulter
Genre: Western

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is an ambitious and unflinchingly brutal western-slash-revenge tale that follows a frontiersman in the American wilderness during the 1800s. Going into the theatre I had high hopes for this film, seemingly a worthy successor to his Best Picture winner Birdman, which I didn’t love, but still enjoyed immensely.

On a technical level, the film excels. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is undoubtedly the star of the film. He’s able to capture the duality and conflict of the beauty and horror inherent in nature, one of the film’s key thematic elements, with an astonishing amount of clarity. His tracking shots are a marvel; the best scene in the film is the opening sequence, featuring a long take surveying the chaotic madness of the battlefield. The 360 shots along with the production design are essential in building the world that film is set in. Visually, it’s my second favourite film of 2015 (next to Carol, of course, which is my favourite everything).

It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the film doesn’t quite match up to its technical feats. It’s on a storytelling and thematic level where the cracks are prevalent. The Revenant wants to be a transcendent tale about the relationship between humanity, nature, and spirituality, but works much better when it accepts that it is just a simple (at times generic) tale about revenge. The story starts off phenomenally, with several well done action sequences, including the now infamous bear attack scene which lives up to every expectation. However, it gets a little too repetitive in its middle act, where we follow Glass as he wanders the wilderness and runs into numerous problems — so many problems, in fact, that it becomes almost too contrived. The inclusion of several flashbacks and dream sequences causes the story to be disjointed, and there seems to be little to warrant their presence. The flashbacks do little to flesh out the character of Glass, other than establish his background with his son and his connection with the Native Americans. Neither do they develop Glass’ deceased Native American wife, who is nothing more than a prop to appear and provide Glass with some motivational words at opportune times. The dream sequences sloppily throw in the theme of spirituality, by far the worst developed theme of the movie. 

The lack of exploration of the characters’ morality is a wasted opportunity; Iñárritu is content to portray them as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but rarely in between. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly compelling, although to a certain extent it’s because there is little in the hyper-masculine characters that I can identify with. This is most evident in Tom Hardy’s character Fitzgerald, who is one-dimensional by virtue of having no redeemable qualities. The acting capabilities of the cast is, however, enough to make up for any weaknesses and underdevelopment in the characters. Leonardo DiCaprio is utterly compelling and transformative; starting as a man and ending up a savage. He portrays his character’s will and determination to live in a way that is both ugly and harrowing, yet enchanting. DiCaprio is backed up by good performances by the aforementioned Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson (his best performance in a landmark year) and Will Poulter, all of whom give much more nuance to their characters than the screenplay provides them with.

Yet, despite its flaws, much like Birdman I was entertained by the The Revenant throughout. At its core, when it is not trying too hard to push its themes and symbolism with contrivances, it is a harrowing and thrilling revenge tale that is also about one man’s perseverance and tenacity in surviving the wilderness. Had it been more streamlined and found a better balance between thematic development and pure plot, it would have resonated a lot more with me.

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