By Alan Mattli
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, based on Michael Punke’s eponymous 2002 novel, which offered a fictionalised account of American frontiersman Hugh Glass’ incredible journey back to civilization following a near-fatal bear attack, is a strange animal indeed. Knowledge of the film’s turbulent production history almost inevitably bleeds into any kind of assessment, while its unflinchingly raw, visceral, ostentatiously serious nature helps to mask the ethical issues a more thorough analysis of intention and audience guidance might potentially raise.
Solely on its own terms, The Revenant is a good film – maybe not quite worth the twelve Oscar nominations it has garnered, but a worthy, if inferior, follow-up to Iñárritu’s more freewheeling Birdman nonetheless. Over an arguably bloated runtime of two and a half hours, it chronicles in pronounced detail how, after being mauled, Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is left behind by his fellow trappers and placed in the care of his Native-American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), greenhorn Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and jaded, opportunistic veteran Fitzgerad (a stellar turn by Tom Hardy, who seems to channel Jeff Bridges’ performance from True Grit), who are ordered to await Glass’ death and give him a Christian burial. But because Glass staunchly refuses to die, Fitzgerald decides to dump him in a shallow grave and take flight. Thus begins Glass’ arduous 200-mile trek to Fort Kiowa, much of it spent crawling and stumbling, in search of revenge.
Although the film is far from perfect – a poorly incorporated subplot involving a group of Arikara looking for their chief’s kidnapped daughter, while supplying a welcome dose of diversity, adds little to nothing to the actual plot –, there is no denying that it achieves its goals capably. The Revenant is a potent counternarrative to the air of mythical romanticism that continues to surround the brutal days of frontier exploration in the first half of the 19th century: characters routinely wade through mucky, bloodied water; people are killed in graphic, sometimes offhandedly cruel ways; the frequent dwelling on Glass’ festering wounds highlights the feeling of history unappealingly coming to life.
The experience is heightened artistically by the film’s perhaps most distinguishing feature: DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s work behind the camera, once again, is beyond reproach. Evoking his work for Terrence Malick, the weightless, floating movements of his camera, the relentless deep focus, the probing close-ups, the sweeping, ruminative vistas of misty mountains and vast, unspoilt river valleys lend The Revenant a tremendous visual beauty that repeatedly underscores the pettiness of human concerns in the face of wild, untamed nature. Along with the distinctly, and deliberately, hollow feeling the final scene leaves you with, the frequent shots of trees, lakes, and mountains dwarfing the protagonists serve to ultimately make this a tale of the futility of revenge.
Unlike his screen incarnation, the historical Hugh Glass didn’t need to go through a prolonged hack-and-slash contest to learn that lesson, as he spared the life of the men who had left him for dead, reportedly because of qualms concerning the legal ramifications of killing army members like Fitzgerald. From a dramatic perspective, Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith were right in striking a compromise between a glorified revenge fantasy and the bloodless realisation that such campaigns are notoriously devoid of closure. Narratively, their film – clunky detours and add-ons aside – works. So why doesn’t The Revenant feel entirely honest?
For one, there is its staging of violence and misery. From Glass’ flayed body to him scarfing down raw bison liver, extreme discomfort is the film’s pervasive theme, and Iñárritu is not afraid to show it: many of Lubezki’s close-ups prominently display the characters’ gaping wounds, the squirting of their blood, their dead, blackened flesh. Yes, this may drive home the point The Revenant might be trying to make about the Old West – but at the same time, it turns human suffering into little more than an artistically elevated spectacle. The representation of pain – both by the camera and the actors, who more than ably grunt and scream their way through the most horrible of tribulations – is at times taken to an extreme where dramatic intensity and immediacy fail to hide that the film, ultimately, deals in fetishistic sadism.
These reservations are not exactly allayed by the fact that the people speaking on behalf of the movie have adopted the strategy of citing the tough shooting process, conducted amid harsh conditions in sub-zero temperatures, as evidence for its alleged greatness. While this does not really take away from the finished product’s undeniable qualities, it does feed into the impression that The Revenant is a film built on the marketable exploitation of pain.
In a similar vein, this, too, is a film where one can make a solid case for calling it pretentious – in the sense that it pretends to be something that it’s not; or rather, that it shies away from admitting what it actually is. Even though its strong sense of aestheticism is markedly more reminiscent of, say, Terrence Malick’s The New World than 1970s exploitation cinema, The Revenant reminded me in many ways of Sergio Corbucci’s classsic spaghetti western Il grande silenzio (distributed internationally as The Great Silence): both are set in a snowy, filthy frontier world; both feature a taciturn, physically incapacitated protagonist seeking revenge; and both end on a somewhat bleak note, questioning the efficacy of eye-for-an-eye vigilante justice.
By framing its unapologetic penchant for blood in a more pondering way than Corbucci ever would or could, The Revenant tenaciously keeps up the appearance of a serious existential drama, even if it doesn’t have all that much more to say about the human condition than a revisionist blood western like Il grande silenzio – or Man in the Wilderness, Richard C. Sarafian’s 1971 adaptation of the Hugh Glass story, for that matter.
In the moment, I did enjoy The Revenant, as much as it can be “enjoyed”. The imagery truly is a stunning work of art; the cast does a fine job at humanising the often underwritten characters; and Iñárritu is an accomplished enough director to paper over the cracks visible in the scenario. But there is something seriously wrong with the way in which the depiction of grisliness is seemingly viewed as a means to an end here. The film has my admiration for what it is, but not for how it gets there.
★★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.