One of the chief pleasures of Alejandro Iñárritu’s much-lauded Birdman is the film’s vision of New York City. The slice of that metropolis in which Riggan stages his masturbatory effort towards artistic authenticity is absurd and fanciful: represented by a tangle of immaculate sets, cramped yet inviting backstage areas, and a couple of bars and liquor stores, the Manhattan of Birdman is more ideal than reality, more construct than representation. In Riggan’s universe, a lighting fixture falling on a troublesome actor’s head or the omnipresence of a bespoke drum soundtrack is as natural as the wail of a fire engine is within our own. Against this backdrop, Riggan’s increasingly outlandish actions feel natural, as the city around him strives to match his level of internal turmoil and delusion.
In The Revenant, Iñárritu’s latest film, the wilderness in which protagonist Hugh Glass finds himself likewise reflects and matches the character’s mental and physical journey. Whereas Birdman’s Manhattan is vibrant and claustrophobic, the snowy landscape of woods, rivers, and cliffs across which Glass spends the majority of the film crawling is cold and solitary, a place where any meeting between living creatures will almost certainly end in the death of one at the hands (or teeth) of another. In this wilderness there is no space for humor, and barely any for humanity, and the pervasively bleak tone yields a film that is weirdly alienated from its protagonist’s journey.
Let the blame not be placed on Leonardo DiCaprio’s narrow shoulders. DiCaprio, a perpetual awards season bridesmaid, seems to have dedicated himself wholly to the role of Glass, and, to his credit, seems to embody the man’s physical pain whenever he is on screen. But the role is incredibly limited, and what’s worse, writers Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu himself have dressed up Glass’s tale of perseverance by adding a number of historically inaccurate details and intertwined the telling with the much more compelling journey of Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy) and the cliched search by the resident Arikara chief for his kidnapped daughter. For the purposes of the film, Glass has been given a half-Indian son who Fitzgerald kills before leaving the guide for dead, an act for which Glass spends the rest of the movie seeking revenge, all while suffering seemingly endless visions of the boy’s mother, who was herself killed by white men. These dreams, and the good versus evil stakes that the fake son plot set up, keep the audience from truly identifying with Glass’s physical struggle because of its Hollywood trappings.
In the film's best performance, Tom Hardy plays Fitzgerald as a desperate man driven to cruelty. The battle of wills between Fitzgerald and the Captain of the expedition (portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson) as they struggle to return to civilization is the best relationship in the film, a series of cunning debates played out with half-truths and appeals to base humanity. The fact that Hardy injects such life into Fitzgerald leads to a tortured affinity between his character and the audience, as we identify with his motivations as much as, if not more than, Glass’s. Though evil, Fitzgerald is compellingly portrayed and, more importantly, given a series of scenes with other people in which his character develops; in contrast, Glass says very few words to anyone and spends most of his time alone, and as such remains something of a cipher.
Story aside, The Revenant is a gorgeous looking film with at least two excellent scenes. The first major set piece happens right at the beginning, when a riverside fur trapping camp is attacked by Arikara Indians. In a series of lengthy shots, musket-wielding trappers are shot through the neck with arrows from unseen assailants, horses are executed, Indians fall screaming from their perches high in the trees, and the small group of surviving white men make a daring break for their boat. Only half an hour later, the film’s second incredible scene occurs when Glass, while hunting alone in the woods, comes between a mother bear and her cubs. Glass's ensuing struggle with the bear is among the greatest hand to hand fights ever captured on screen. The audience can feel every rend of the bear’s claws and each stab of Glass’s knife into the beast’s neck.
Unfortunately, both of the film’s best scenes are over before one-quarter of its run time has elapsed, meaning that every later scene that tries to top these early ones (including DiCaprio disemboweling a horse, using it as a sleeping bag, and then emerging naked the next morning from its icy carcass) seems weak by comparison. Pair this with Iñárritu’s tendency to repeat certain shots of trees and the interminable digressions that follow the Arikara chief’s search for his missing daughter and the film begins to drag at about the halfway point and never picks up again until the very end. What’s worse, since there is absolutely no levity in the script, Iñárritu’s self-serious tone gets in its own way and becomes itself somewhat (unintentionally) humorous, with each new torment piled on Glass seeming more absurd than the last.
The Revenant is a fat movie that should have been thin. Had the film followed only Glass and Fitzgerald, it could have been a tight story about betrayal and revenge, almost a mirror image of The Searchers. But with all of its extraneous plots and backstory, the story loses focus and drags. Iñárritu has regressed to the days of 21 Grams and Babel, concerning himself with telling interwoven stories instead of finding one character and sticking to them. As such, the subtlety and humor of Birdman have given way to a dour, overlong meditation on the nature of revenge that never feels focused. It is a coldly beautiful movie that betrays its own story by overcomplicating the telling.