if this review reads a little awkward, it's because I've shoe-horned Taylor Swift references throughout. just so you get the same feeling of unnecessary bits of indulgence feels like when you read the review of a film that featured plenty of unnecessary indulgence.
A group of fur trappers, including the fearless and distinguished Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) have just fled from attack by the Native American Arikara Indians from which who’s land they had been occupying. Due to his extensive experience in fur trapping, Glass has influence over the route the hunting party will take to get home, which is resented by a fellow member of his group, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who taunts Glass about his son, who is half Indian, cruelly naming him a ‘halfbreed’.
One morning, when he’s out hunting alone, Glass is brutally attacked by a bear. She tosses him about, scratches her claws into him and presses her entire body weight against his skull, then saunters off. Just as you think Glass is out of the woods, however, the bear comes back, goes in harder, and leaves him on the edge of death. Never in your wildest dreams would you expect anyone to survive such a vicious mauling.
The rest of Glass’ group find him and try their best to piece him back together with their limited resources, but there’s no denying that on a journey in treacherous terrain, he’s slowing them down. The decent captain of the group, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), finding himself incapable of committing a mercy-killing, offers a monetary reward to any of the team who will stay by Glass’ side until he passes away. Glass’ son, Hawk, and a soft-hearted young man named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) who during the siege at the start of the film had almost been killed by the Native Indians, and Fitzgerald himself volunteer.
Unsurprisingly, give the bad blood between Glass and Fitzgerald and Fitz's disdain for Glass’ son which he hasn’t bothered to hide, this doesn’t lead to a happily ever after. Fitzgerald kills Hawk in front of Glass’ own eyes and then tricks Bridger into leaving Glass for dead. But, through sheer force of will, Glass survives, with the sole raison d’être of hunting Fitzgerald down and making him pay for the murder of his son.
Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Oscar for Best Director last year at the Oscars, as well as picking up Best Picture for Birdman, his cheeky satire on actors and their craft, which pretty much crowned him Hollywood’s Golden Boy and allowed him a blank space with which to do whatever he fancied for his next picture. Unfortunately, The Revenant isn’t half as fun to watch as Birdman. It isn’t even 0.0000001%.
This is certainly through no fault of the performers. Much has been made of how much Leonardo DiCaprio suffered to play Hugh Glass (we could wryly note that this is because the cast and crew don’t miss an opportunity to tell us so at any possible opportunity), but even if you were to strip away all of the mud, blood and physical unpleasantness he had to endure, it is still a masterclass in physical theatre. DiCaprio isn’t given many lines in The Revenant, and when so much is conveyed through his body language, it is of paramount important he gets it right. As he lies on his makeshift deathbed, refusing to give in, determined to survive, we feel the same. When the bear attacks Glass, we flinch as if the attack is happening to us. DiCaprio (and the very convincing makeup staff) are that credible.
Tom Hardy also excels in the villainous role. With a sneer and sarcastic mumble mouth, you know he is trouble when he walks in. John Fitzgerald has regard for nobody but himself,
and with that, no conscience. Of course, this isn’t the first time Tom Hardy has played a baddie who’s speech you struggle to comprehend, being cast as Bane in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. But here he is far less cartoonish. Fitzgerald is the antagonist, but with his wild, darting eyes, Hardy injects pathos into this dislikable character. It is because Fitzgerald is so pitiable that he is so terrifying.
Other standout performers include Domhnall Gleeson, aka Bill Weasley. The red-haired Irishman seemed to be ubiquitous in 2015, appearing in Brooklyn, Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Those three movies and The Revenant, have all been Oscar-nominated, although the man himself hasn’t been. I’d argue that his performance as the honest Captain in The Revenant is deserving of a nomination. He excels at depicting Captain Henry’s balancing act between being an authoritative figure who is also compassionate, but will bar his teeth when needs be. Incidentally, the raw display of masculinity from Gleeson when the Captain furiously discovers Fitzgerald lied to him about Glass is a thing to behold; Domhnall has never been sexier. Finally, English actor Will Poulter delivers a poetic, sweet performance, acting as a perfect foil to Hardy’s mercenary.
For all of the outstanding performances from the committed cast, they are let down by the sheer narcissism of the director, who evidently let that Best Director Oscar get to his head. The Revenant was a difficult shoot and a difficult picture to make. Of this I have no illusions. And to the film’s credit, it contains some handsome scenes. The scene at the beginning where the fur hunters come under attack is beautifully shot, with the hyperkinetic camera busily trying to capture flying spears hitting their targets from every angle. But at some point, and this will vary depending on the attention span of the viewer, but for me it was just before the hour mark, it becomes blatantly clear that Iñárritu has made a film for himself rather than the audience.
Long, needless shots punctuate dramatic scenes to bloat up the running time in a manner so laborious that it makes Terrence Malick look like Michael Bay. In one late combative scene, blood flies from a character onto the camera and rather than shake it off to make the scene look more polished, AGI leaves it there, as a reminder of what an EXCELLENT director he is and how AUTHENTIC the shoot was.
With a running time of 2 hours and 36 minutes, The Revenant is the longest of the eight Best Picture nominees this year, and boy do those 156 minutes drag on. As the screen was lathered with brazen Oscar begging misery porn in the form of Leo’s cracked skin, gory detail of his bear wounds or an unsavoury sexual assault on one of the Pawnee women, I was reminded of Ricky Gervais’ comment to Steve Carrell about The Office US v UK: it’s quality, not quantity.
Other aspects of the film don’t sit well with me either. The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner, sound like a bizarre melange of noises rather than anything mellifluous. Proponents of The Revenant will argue that they contribute to the frosty frontier setting of the film, but I know these sparse atonal sounds all too well, and rarely do the signify a film that I’ll enjoy.
And sadly, due to the pretentious direction, The Revenant ends up being, lamentably, much less than the sum of its parts. Leo will finally take home the Oscar at the end of February, and in addition to it being long overdue, he deserves it on the strength of his wonderful work. It’s just a shame that film itself, which plays out to be a clunkier, less emotionally engaging, more Oscar-thirsty version of Gladiator, doesn’t match the quality of his performance.