By David Jacobson (Minneapolis, MN)
The Revenant opens with what seems to be a shot of a shallow stream, but as the camera tilts up we realize that we’re in the woods and that a thin layer of water is rushing around trees and over roots and stones on the forest floor. A nearby river has probably overrun its banks. As the camera creeps through this eerie landscape, the barrel of a musket sweeps into the frame, followed by a boot. Three men are stalking a moose. In one long take, the camera moves between the woods, the moose, and the men, creating suspense and giving the sense that the wilderness and its lurking dangers are going to be as important to this film as the men we are following.
Back at the camp, fur trappers skin pelts and chop wood. The peace of their late afternoon activities is broken with the cry of “Savages!” A naked man, presumably out taking a dump in the woods or swimming in the river, runs toward camp and is promptly shot through the back with an arrow. The panicked trappers dive for their muskets and take cover where they can. They don’t know where the next arrow will come from, but come it does, piercing a man through the abdomen. His gun goes off, shooting a fellow trapper who falls into the fire. It’s pandemonium from here on out. The trappers with their one-shot muskets are ‘outgunned’ by volleys of arrows and then overrun by Indians on horseback. The camera submerges us in the battle, panning unobtrusively from strangling to clubbing to hacking in one long take. “To the boat!” Someone yells, and you get the feeling that’s a pretty good idea. Eleven surviving trappers push off down the river as arrows thunk into the side of the boat. Onshore the remaining trappers are slaughtered and scalped.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his teenage half-Indian son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), are among the survivors floating down the river. The banks of the river are too close for comfort and Glass, a seasoned trapper and tracker, is sure they are still in danger. He decides that their best bet is to ditch the boat and continue the remaining two hundred miles on foot, which means stashing their few bales of pelts, and returning to Fort Kiowa empty handed. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) complains bitterly and accuses Glass of colluding with the Indians. Fitzgerald has unflinching blue eyes and explosive anger, and he makes everyone around him anxious for their safety. The only time you’d be glad to have this guy around is when fighting off a common enemy. When a bear mauls Glass, and his screams are threatening to give away their position to Indians, Fitzgerald says “the proper thing to do would be to finish him off,” and he offers to do the job. So, needless to say, you’re uncomfortable when he volunteers (for a reward upon return) to stay with Glass until he dies and give him a proper burial. After some skullduggery, Glass is left for dead, setting off a revenge plot and giving The Revenant its aptly chosen title.
Disbelief becomes increasingly harder to suspend as Glass cheats death time and again. He lives through a fierce storm and a strangling (though not at the same time), survives shootouts and ambushes, gets mauled by a bear, gallops off a cliff, and floats down a glacial river over waterfalls and rapids. You can imagine someone surviving any one of these tribulations, but not all, and not DiCaprio, whose expressive face evokes suffering and even savvy, but not the kind of indomitable spirit probably required to pull through all this in one piece.
The film version of The Revenant, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu, is “based in part on the novel by Michael Punke.” To give a sense of how closely Iñárritu hews to the book, the novel takes place in contemporary South Dakota, and the film was shot predominantly in Alberta and Argentina. While it makes for beautiful cinematography, the snow-capped mountains on screen bear little resemblance to the prairies of South Dakota. This choice to trade-up for a more grandiose landscape was emblematic of The Revenant, a sweeping, big-budget movie that pulled out all the proverbial stops, yet glossed over crucial details.
The Revenant wants to be taken seriously. Iñárritu (and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) filmed 93% of the movie in exterior locations, in predominantly long takes, and using only natural light, all of which contribute to the film’s naturalism and the difficulty of the shoot. The makeup team spent as much as five hours a day covering DiCaprio’s body in lifelike wounds to simulate the scarring of a bear attack. DiCaprio shot many of Glass’s stunts himself, “enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.” This is a production that is committed to getting it right, but they miss the mark on a couple key points, which undermines the entire film. The multiple locations created a startling lack of continuity. Snow appears and disappears on the ground without explanation. There are jarring shifts in landscape and lighting that occur too quickly to make sense. Most importantly, Iñárritu doesn’t accurately portray the dangers of winter in the wilderness.
In one scene, a band of fur trappers swathed in clothes and blankets (indicative of cold, likely subzero, weather) tramp across a stream without hesitation. The water is ankle deep, their leather boots look flimsy, and yet they continue up the far snowy bank without even bothering to dry their feet by a fire. You don’t have to be familiar with Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” to imagine the danger of wet feet in cold weather. Most of these guys have axes – why not chop down a tree, lay it across the stream and use it as a bridge?
Similarly, after floating down a river, Glass emerges from the water sopping wet and staggering under the weight of his waterlogged clothes and bearskin. It’s winter, the water is frigid, and Glass should be hypothermic. He should be shivering uncontrollably but he doesn’t even look cold. This water is just as cold as the northern Atlantic Ocean where, in Titanic, DiCaprio’s character froze to death in minutes. Glass needs to get a big fire going quickly, which, as cold as he should be, is not going to be easy. But we don’t see Glass start a fire. The camera cuts away to follow another storyline, and when we return, Glass is warming his hands by a modest fire. By not showing him start a fire, the movie loses credibility. When a protagonist faces a major obstacle, it’s important to see him work his way through to a resolution. When Glass faced a Grizzly Bear in the woods, we saw him get mauled by the bear and we saw him manage to kill the bear with his musket. And while a cold man struggling to start a fire may have less cinematic appeal than a bear-mauling, we need to see it to even have a chance of believing it.
Later, in an illogical sequence of events, Glass wakes up to the sound of Indian war-whoops, hops on his trusty horse, and, at full-gallop, evades a volley of arrows and charges headlong off a cliff. (In the first battle sequence, the Pawnee are deadly accurate with their bows, and now twenty Pawnee can’t hit one man at close range?) Anyway, the horse plummets to his death, but Glass tumbles through the boughs of a well-placed pine tree and lands without a bone broken. Next, Glass eviscerates his horse, strips naked and crawls inside of it. And, while this is a documented method of riding out a storm or extreme cold, it doesn’t make a lot of narrative sense in this context. The sun is low in the sky and presumably it’s evening, not morning, and the temperature is about to plummet as night comes on. But why not make a fire and small shelter as he does every other night? Sleeping inside of a horse is a last ditch plan. I’m doubtful that a horse carcass would retain its heat throughout a twelve-hour night, and if it starts to freeze around Glass, he’s going to have a hell of a time trying to bust his way out of there in the morning. And given Iñárritu’s previous downplaying of the threat of cold weather, it’s hard to believe here. As it was, I got the feeling that the whole bit with Indians and the cliff was contrived just so we could get the shock effect of a horse-evisceration (and a delicious slice of DiCaprio’s nude buttocks).
The hardships that Glass faces are interspersed with surreal dream sequences and cliché flashbacks – stock images that are probably meant to evoke suffering and longing. We see the ruins of a stone church, a pyramid of skulls, an Indian village in flames and Glass’s murdered wife floating above him. In a film filled with suffering and violence, these moments could have been used to broaden Glass’s emotional scope and add depth to his character. Surely there was more to his life and marriage than loss and heartache. Where is the joy? In one scene, Glass watches as a bison is torn apart by wolves. Maybe he sees himself in the plight of the bison, abandoned by his herd and devoured by enemies, but the metaphor of one man against all odds feels heavy-handed and unnecessary.
Not to pile on or anything, but the wilderness of The Revenant feels a little too crowded to be believable. This is almost explainable, given that certain groups are actively tracking other groups, and that a lot of travel occurs near the banks of rivers, but it still feels like there are one or two too many accidental meetings in the vast swath of land where the movie takes place.
This laundry list negligence took away from the believability of The Revenant and led to my feeling that Iñárritu wanted the film to convey a harsh reality while simultaneously molding everything to his exact liking. He didn’t want to use CGI to create an avalanche, so he created a ‘real’ avalanche by coordinating planes to drop explosives on a mountain. This is the masturbatory reality of The Revenant. Iñárritu is more concerned here with beauty and shock effect than truth. A better film would engage more fully with Glass’s realistic survival challenges (cold, food, dodging unfriendly groups of people) and dial back the number of unrealistic events he survives. A better film would also include interesting, dynamic Indian characters, of which there were none.
After the initial Indian attack, we follow the band of Pawnee just long enough to discover their contrived motivation for attacking the fur trappers (they’re looking for the chief’s daughter, who has supposedly been kidnapped), but nowhere near long enough to give depth to any of the individual tribe members and make them more than a mere obstacle to the fur trappers. It would be great if the Pawnee were going to get some character development, but since they’re basically just going to be the ‘bad guys’, we don’t need to spend any time with them. In fact, Iñárritu would derive more suspense from not showing them. It’s enough to know that they are pursuing Glass and that danger could be lurking behind any tree. But each time we see the Pawnee and they fail to kill Glass, they feel less real and the film feels more like a sham.
In the end, The Revenant doesn’t live up to its $135 million budget or the high bar that the first twenty minutes of the movie sets for itself.BEST QUOTES