One year after his highly successful, prize-winning picture Birdman, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu delivered a movie that received exuberant praise even before it was released – and that seemed specifically designed to get Leonardo DiCaprio his long overdue Academy Award. The Revenant is beautiful, gritty and occasionally downright gory, yet at the end of the day, even the most astonishing landscape shots and the most graphic violence does very little to hide the fact that this 19th century survival drama – half sinister sequel to Dances With Wolves, half Gollum origin story – isn’t nearly as interesting as everybody wants to believe.
The plot is simple, mainly because there is so little of it: following an attack by hostile Native Americans, trapper Hugh Glass attempts to lead a small band of survivors (including his half-Pawnee son Hawk) back to their outpost; their journey is somewhat hampered when Glass runs right into a grizzly bear: not the “bare necessities” kind of furry friend, however, but a very angry mother bear that views the ill-fated trapper as a potential threat to her cuddly cubs and attacks him. Unfortunately for both the cubs and the audience, Glass kills his opponent before she manages to kill him, thereby setting the stage for Leo’s two-and-a-half-hour creep towards a golden statue. John Fitzgerald, a dodgy trapper who doesn’t want to burden himself with the severely injured Glass, tries to solve the problem by burying his colleague alive (not before killing Hawk, who doesn’t quite agree) and mumbles his way back to the outpost in a completely unintelligible hillbilly accent. Murder, too, proves to be futile, and what follows is the lengthiest revenge story ever told, in which the indestructible Hugh Glass literally crawls back through the bleak winter not-so-much-wonderland, sometimes interrupted by random hallucinations of his dead Pawnee wife and their son.
It’s hard to shake the impression that Iñárritu and his co-filmmakers were fully aware of the fact that there isn’t really much going on in The Revenant, which would explain the employment of elaborate filming techniques such as seemingly never-ending shots and the use of natural light, as well as the sheer brutality and unpleasantness of several scenes that pop up in frequent intervals: each time the viewer is close to falling asleep, Hugh Glass stumbles into yet another misadventure which usually involves a lot of blood, a dead horse and/or eating something really disgusting (“now we wish to catch a fish, so juicy sweet”). While some of these misadventures are a bit weird, others are completely ignorant of the laws of physics, making the action slapstickish and unintentionally funny (but without making the boring stuff more bearable, alas).
Leonardo DiCaprio is undoubtedly a very capable actor worthy of an Oscar, and it is almost a shame that he eventually won it for a movie in which he doesn’t do anything except crawl through mud, groan and eat nasty things – even though it is surely one of the most convincing crawling performances ever captured on film. DiCaprio’s co-stars Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter are equally dedicated to bringing their characters to life, which is remarkable considering that they play the stereotypical bad guy, the stereotypical good guy, and the stereotypical nice-but-cowardly kid.
Fancy filming techniques, excellent theatrical performances and a marvellous backdrop all do precious little to hide that The Revenant suffers severely from its repetitive structure and the simplicity of its plot. From a technical point of view, it is indeed a very well-made film – but as Iñárritu skilfully demonstrates, even a well-made film can feel cold, superficial and empty. If it weren’t for Leo being awarded the Best Actor Academy Award, The Revenant would probably always be remembered as the most beautiful boring film ever made.