Is this all there is to Alejandro González Iñárritu? Visually immaculate films that are thin and almost totally empty, whose only true thematic concerns are what a great filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu is? It’s starting to seem that way, and The Revenant is just the latest gorgeous, hollow and largely pointless work from a director who has convinced so many that his stark nudity is actually a sumptuous set of clothes.
Loosely - and I mean LOOSELY - based on the novel of the same name, which was based on the true story of frontier badass Hugh Glass, The Revenant sees Leonardo DiCaprio mauled by a bear, left for dead, and stumbling through the wilderness in search of vengeance. In the true story Glass did it all just because the men he was with had left him behind, weaponless, to die. The movie adds a murdered son (a half-breed, so we can get racial injustice in there as well) to the equation to really give us that extra dose of Hollywood pathos. That dead son brings little to the film except more minutes to endure.
You could walk in on any one scene of The Revenant and assume you’re watching a masterpiece; the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Chivo to his BFFs in awards punditry) is often stunning, and the frames are composed with a master’s confidence. But they don’t mean anything - a particularly gorgeous shot of Glass walking alone on a frozen river, flanked by great grey gloomy ridges of mountains makes for a fine image but imparts no new emotional information at that moment in the story. A great cinematic image is made up of more than composition and lighting, it’s made up of intrinsic contextual meaning. One of the reasons I hate the “One Perfect Shot” school of cinematography appreciation is that it leaves context behind; a great shot is partially great because of the story it is telling, the emotion it is conveying, the character it is describing. Great shots cannot be disconnected from the whole because truly great shots inform the whole. So little in The Revenant means anything that I assume the One Perfect Shot crowd will be going apeshit over its meticulously composed, emotionally sterile imagery.
DiCaprio grunts, groans, screams, crawls and grimaces his way through the film, but he only captures the red hot madness of Glass once. Late in the film, explaining that he will not stop seeking vengeance, he becomes convincingly demented and we can finally see the furnace of hate that has fueled his trip. But before that DiCaprio often comes off as hapless, less a force of nature and more a feather tumbling on the wind, a particularly grungy Forrest Gump in the forest.
If the performance had more of that hate it would have been better, but the way he plays Glass feels more like a passion play in which his angelic features (DiCaprio never convinces as a weathered mountain man) take the brunt of two hours of sadistic abuse. The awards marketing angle for the movie has been how tough the conditions were (it’s the arthouse version of Tom Cruise Does His Own Stunts), but eating dirt doesn’t make a great performance. What’s worse, the movie’s precision of filmmaking often robs scenes of their visceral impact, never allowing the audience to truly feel the cold and the pain.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald, a cruelly selfish trapper who kills Glass’ son and leaves the man buried alive. Hardy’s brand of mumbling and oddball internalization works wonders here, and he creates a delicious villain who brushes right up against being hammy. There is no actor more fun to watch than Tom Hardy, and when the film focuses on him it comes immediately to life. Hardy isn’t chasing an Oscar or trying to prove himself here, he’s just sinking into his heavy furs and grungy make-up and is being this guy.
Hardy is joined by Will Poulter’s Bridger, looking perfectly like a first generation back county shire boy, and their relationship is what kept me going through the film’s interminable runtime. Poulter is the youngest member of a beaver trapping expedition that gets waylaid by a vicious Indian attack, and he is one of the few survivors. He gets caught up in the drama surrounding Glass - the group’s guide - when the man is savagely mauled by a bear (in a sequence so extended it played like comedy to me) and ends up on the precipice of death. When Fitzgerald kills Glass’ son and leaves the guide for dead Bridger becomes an unwitting accomplice. Together Bridger and Fitzgerald make their way through the wilderness back to base and Bridger is haunted not just by the violence Fitzgerald has committed but by the violence committed against the natives. Poulter is great, and he and Hardy make a terrific team, bouncing off each other in tension and fear.
But The Revenant isn’t their story, and so the film keeps going back to the solitary journey of Hugh Glass through breathtaking scenery shot in natural light. Along that journey Iñárritu sprinkles visions and dreams - a mountain of buffalo skulls, flashbacks to atrocities against Indians, floating dead wives - that add up to very little. Each sequence is wonderful, but their on-the-nose metaphorical meaning blunts any impact. Ham-handed, thy name is Iñárritu.
For most of the film’s running time I was satisfied with it as a muscular survival tale. Iñárritu, who co-wrote the script with Mark L. Smith, leaves out much of the pretentious pontificating that made Birdman so suffocating… until the end. There’s a sequence at the end that tries to tie up the themes of the piece in a sequence that is laughable, that plays into the noble savage stereotype in a huge way and that requires DiCaprio to speak aloud the moral lesson of the movie. Iñárritu couldn’t trust us to connect the dots! He was worried his flashy genius might blind us, I guess.
It is frustrating that a filmmaker as technically gifted as Iñárritu is full of so much shit. His collaborations with Lubezki have been visually phenomenal, and Iñárritu knows how to tell a story and he has an attention to detail that is impressive. But he uses these gifts in the service of movies that exist only to reflect glory back onto himself. In his endless scramble to make movies that are Important he keeps forgetting to make movies that are honest, or emotionally vulnerable, or that contain any truth.