In a mostly ambiguous time and setting, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of explorers are on the hunt for fur on the snowy plains of America. After a surprise attack from an Indian tribe, Glass' expedition ends up charting a new course back to safety. Glass is known as an expert in the field of western expeditions, but he has a rather contemptuous relationship with many members of his crew, especially John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). On the way to safety, Glass is mauled by a bear, leaving him beaten, bloodied and unable to move. Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) is adamant that the team must stay with Glass, but others aren't so sure. The devious Fitzgerald believes that it's in the team's best interest to finish Glass off quick and move on.
Fitzgerald and the young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) volunteer to stay with Glass until the end while Henry and the others on the expedition move back to safety. But Fitzgerald doesn't intend to hang around and wait for Glass to die. Fitzgerald kills Glass' son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and buries Glass alive, hoping to leave the injured explorer in the dirt. Despite his injuries, Glass becomes the man who just won't quit. Surviving Indian attacks, the brutal force of nature, and a lack of food and supplies, Glass finds his way back to civilization in the hopes of taking revenge against the man who took everything from him.
It's tough to flat-out pan The Revenant, because on most levels, it is expertly crafted and beautifully made. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is deserving of an Oscar, capturing the grit and beauty of the American frontier, while Inarritu's insistence on shooting with only natural light definitely adds something to the movie. The sound design is gorgeous, and there's a level of authenticity that is unmatched by most films. And despite my qualms with Inarritu's filmmaking, he certainly knows how to shoot a great action scene and there are so many gorgeously filmed setpieces in The Revenant that immerse the audience in the action. The way that Inarritu carries the camera is stunning and there are so many stretches of pure, expert filmmaking in this movie.
But for what? The Revenant may be really pretty to look at it, but that doesn't carry a 156 minute movie. Ultimately, the movie feels like Inarritu pulling out every trick in the book to make you feel like you're witnessing something special. Inarritu's Oscar-winning Birdman was a bit gimmicky and bizarre, but there was something under the surface- that film had quite a bit to say about fame and the Hollywood world and had a very fascinating character at its center. There were some times where it distracted, but for the most part, the one-shot trick was secondary to the substance of the film. In The Revenant, it's practically the opposite. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it's the most extreme example of style over substance in recent movie history.
Let's go over the story again. Leonardo DiCaprio gets mauled by a bear. His son gets killed. And he goes to get the man who did it. DiCaprio's Hugh Glass barely speaks the whole time. He walks around the empty landscapes of the West for days and days. And every once in a while, he does something really gross and brutal, like disembowel a horse or cut somebody's fingers off. I dare anybody who watches this movie to find anything to like about the character of Hugh Glass or to really care about the plot of The Revenant. Yes, you feel bad about what happened to Glass. I guess you kinda want him to kill Fitzgerald because of what happened to his son. But at the same time, the movie absolutely pummels you into submission with its despair and violence, and in the end, it's not worth it. There's no reward for the audience at the film's conclusion. It's a slog to get through and by the end, I knew no more about Hugh Glass than I did at the beginning. It's almost pointless.
That's why I don't think that Leonardo DiCaprio should win an Oscar this year. Look, I'm one of the biggest fans of DiCaprio around. Every movie he does is unique and different in its own way and he has made so many modern classics that it's insane. But in The Revenant, DiCaprio gives the most Oscar-bait performance in a world where Oscar-bait performances are all the rage. He crawls, cries, screams and spits his way through the savagery and inhumanity and as the film's marketing campaign has emphasized over and over again, he really did all of that. But is that what constitutes a great performance? Someone who crawls in the mud a lot? Maybe there was something I missed, but I'm pretty sure that all DiCaprio did in The Revenant was roll through the mud and limp in the snow. It's an impressive achievement in physical method acting, but there's no depth to his character.
When I think of good movies, I think about stories and characters that I truly care about. Physical and technical aspects come second. The problem with The Revenant is that it thinks that if it throws enough visual stimulation at the audience, they'll forget about the fact that it's not that interesting of a story. For comparison, let's look at 2015's other Golden Globe-winning survival film, Ridley Scott's The Martian. Now, I'm not saying that these two films should have been similar in any way. That's just not true. But The Martian is a great example of how to make the audience care about a character that they know next to nothing about. Mark Watney is resourceful, funny and charming, despite being in a situation where the odds are stacked against him. For much of The Revenant, it feels like Hugh Glass is just there. Some terrible things happen to him, but there's not much of a genuine emotional reaction. Glass is a flat character in every sense of the word, driven by one thing and one thing only- revenge.
I think the most crushingly sad part of The Revenant is how thematically vacant it is. And because of that thematic void, the movie feels completely insignificant. There are little things that pop in and out over the course of the film, but there's never one thing to latch onto. Is it about a man surviving the elements of nature? Not really. In my view, The Revenant is a very simple and unsatisfying story of revenge. Inarritu attempts to throw in an oddly spiritual, Earthly element to it that emphasizes family and forgiveness, but it factors into the film so little that it feels useless. On a completely unrelated note, there's a side story that is mostly unrelated to the main story and only collides with Glass' journey at the very end. And according to people who know their history, the ending is completely made up. So why did Inarritu think this was necessary? I have no idea.
The Revenant is a beautiful film, but it's also a punishing experience. It's a grueling, graphic film, and a tough movie to sit through. Are hard, unrelenting movies always a bad thing? No. Absolutely not. There are plenty of great films that are horrific and harsh that I would never watch again. But there's something about this film that fails in every regard. In The Revenant, Inarritu absolutely trounces the viewer with monstrosity after monstrosity to the point where it becomes monotonous. It loses the impact. When something awful happened to a character, I felt nothing, because there's nothing to feel. Inarritu hits you with everything in the book- savage murder, rape, bear attacks, severed limbs, gruesome injuries, disemboweled animals- and yet, he hits you so many times that it becomes a numbing sensation. It's the most simultaneously painful and tedious experience I've had in a cinema in a long time.
The Revenant has no suspense. You sit back and let it batter and pelt you with a murderers' row of appallingly violent acts until you just give up hope. Inarritu's film is stunningly ambitious in a visual and practical sense, and yet, there are no stakes- he feels uninterested in creating a story with any real intrigue for the audience. I didn't hate The Revenant (although this review may sound rather negative, I still found many aspects impressive), but there's so much in it that just feels wrong. Technically robust, but completely hollow, The Revenant is one of the year's biggest letdowns- a promising film lost in its own pretentiousness.
THE FINAL GRADE: C+ (6/10)