The Revenant is both visually interesting and has a good story, yet somehow this makes it worse.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Best Picture-winning Birdman (which was only released last year!—he’s knocking ‘em out fast), The Revenant, is a film that I’m expecting to be even more discussed and better-remembered than Birdman itself. Between those two films alone, I wouldn’t be surprised if Iñárritu gets a cult of film students obsessed with him, like Christopher Nolan’s quick rise to fame with the Batman films and Inception. The Revenant is full of strong performances, memorable scenes, interesting camerawork, and basically just all kinds of stuff to dork out over.
But is it actually any good? Somehow, that’s a more complicated question. I’m in the strange position of liking every single movie Iñárritu has ever made, but loving zero of them; my favorite remains his first, 2000’s Amores Perros. That said, I’d rank all of them but maybe 2006’s Babel as about a seven on a scale of one to ten (Babel would be lower), and The Revenant doesn’t buck this trend. The strange thing about The Revenant specifically is that everyone seems in it for themselves—the cinematography (by one of our very best, Emmanuel Lubezki) is pretty but doesn’t entirely serve the story. Lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is arguably one of his strongest (and will likely win Leo his career-first Oscar), but it’s showy to the point of scene-chewing; he seems to have modeled it after Scott Haze’s in Child of God, all raving through frothy spit. The special effects are really incredible, but they cross the line from being incredible in a way that pulls you into the film to being incredible in such a way that they pull you out of the film, in a “How in the hell did they do that?!” kind of way.
The plot is loosely based on a true story. Here frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is working alongside a large team of men in a fur expedition circa the early 1800s. The expedition is, of course, ill-fated, with DiCaprio getting the brunt of it. The premise, though, at its most base, is that Glass simply won’t die (a revenant is a person who has returned from the dead) —he’s perhaps more invincible than The Revenant’s principle bad guy Tom Hardy was in 2012’s Lawless. Hardy plays John Fitzgerald, a coulda-been good guy who instead acts only in the interest of himself (like what I said for this movie’s filmmakers), and in working towards those goals does some truly reprehensible things.
One of the most heinous things Fitzgerald does is leaving Glass for dead after he’s mauled by a bear, after promising expedition leader Captain Andrew Henry (the newly omnipresent Domhnall Gleeson, who also appeared in Ex Machina, Brooklyn, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015) that he’d look after him. And as you probably heard long before reading this review, that bear attack is easily the most memorable scene not only in The Revenant but in any movie released in 2015. I’ve heard some reviewers complain that The Revenant is too front-loaded with all of its best scenes, which can be damning when you consider that the film is 156 minutes long. I didn’t find this to be true, though; while the bear attack does come early, plenty more good scenes are still to come and interspersed nicely throughout the movie. Further, this is an inherent cinematic film—do yourself a favor and be sure to see it on the big screen.
I’d be the first to tell you that having a good story is only one of many, many things that can make a movie good, and a lot of the time I prefer films that are, say, visually interesting over films that tell an interesting tale. The Revenant is both visually interesting and has a good story, yet somehow this makes it worse—one thing seems to always be distracting away from the other. Throughout the movie I kept wondering what a filmmaker like Kelly Reichardt could have done with this material—it probably wouldn’t have been as memorably special-effectsy, but I bet it would have cohered as a picture much better. | Pete Timmermann