Overrated: The revenant

by liam farrell

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant arrived on our screens amid a blaze of hype. Stories of the film’s production had been circulating in the media for months, each more sensational than the next. The cast and crew braved freezing weather conditions to film in remote locations. Leonardo DiCaprio ate a raw fish. The Mexican director made the decision only to shoot using natural light, meaning they could only make use of the short hours of bleak daylight during the winter. Leonardo DiCaprio ate raw bison liver. The production fell behind schedule, meaning the entire apparatus had to be moved across two continents, from Canada to the southern tip of South America, to catch the last of the winter snow. Leonardo DiCaprio fought a bear.

The veracity of these stories varies. Well, the last one is definitely not true. What is important to note, is the fact that these stories served to construct a macho mythology surrounding the film, a tale of Man against Wilderness, a march of progress into the frontier, the very stuff American exceptionalism is built on. Both Hollywood (unsurprisingly) and the critics fell for the film, as it was showered with awards, and many were shocked to see it lose the Best Picture Oscar to the worthy, if unadventurous, Spotlight.

There is much to be admired about The Revenant. It is certainly a film committed to its aim, being two and a half hours long and fairly unrelenting in its misery and grime. The cinematography by the much-lauded technical wizard Emmanuel Lubezki is dynamic, comprised of acrobatic Steadicam manoeuvres and lens flair. The soundtrack is superb, as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto’s sparse work fits the widescreen hibernal vistas perfectly.

The film’s opening sequence is undeniably thrilling, a Saving Private Ryan-meets-Peckinpah barrage on the senses. However, the problems which ultimately hamper the film are on evidence here. Arrows split heads, people are decapitated and maimed, and DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass is choked in an extremely uncomfortable close-up shot. The Revenant fetishizes suffering, pain, and violence, and over the course of its extended running length, the film doesn’t as much provide a sensory assault as attempt to bludgeon the viewer’s brain into a bloody, frozen mess.

There is very little room for subtlety, as the director’s plot is writ large. The film follows Glass, on his quest for vengeance on Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald, the man who left him for dead in the snow. Despite its length, the film offers only one subplot, concerning a rival group of French hunters, which feels half-baked and forced. The Revenant also fails to flesh out its central characters leaving us with bare-bones basic archetypes, a resilient hero and a greedy villain. The sole three-dimensional character in the film, Will Poulter’s Bridger, is completely sidelined, and the ethical dilemma which confronts him goes unexplored. Iñárritu chooses to include a series of extraneous flashbacks and a dose of pseudo-spirituality that comes off as shallow and pretentious. The Revenant misunderstands its own characters and story, and a film that might have been a gripping search for maturity and moral struggle instead becomes a plodding slog.

The discussion surrounding the film was marked by sensationalist headlines trumpeting the extreme ordeals DiCaprio underwent during the shooting. The film often plays out as if Iñárritu and his lead actor were involved in a strange game of one-upmanship, pushing each other to see how far the orgy of torment could go. Glass spends an interminable amount of time clawing through the muck and snow. His exploits constantly involve the gory innards of various beasts, a particular point of interest for Iñárritu. The performance may be committed, but the attempt to capture the sublime eventually capitulates and becomes ridiculous.  The film tries to create an American Übermensch, but fails to bring any humanity to Glass, as he spends most of the film wheezing and gurgling through his slit throat.  Tom Hardy, for his part, grumbles and mutters his way through the film, sounding and looking like a drunk pirate, and rendering a huge chunk of his dialogue inaudible.

There are two female characters in the film. One is raped and the other murdered. Both are Native American, but the film chooses not to engage with its Other. Make no mistake, The Revenant is a film that celebrates Men. Not the men of the present, intellectual, sensitive, and weak. This is for the real Men of yore, bearded grunting killers. It’s a shallow celebration of primitive masculinity, joining the canon of films more suited as motivational viewing for school rugby teams than for film lovers.