They say that revenge is a dish best served cold or in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s latest film, The Revenant‘s case, completely frozen and riddled with frostbite. Once again joining forces with his Birdman cinematographer/co-conspirator, Emmanuel Lubezki, Inarritu has crafted another must see, technical marvel of a film but unlike their last project, which had heart hidden under layers of bombast, The Revenant; while beautiful, remains joyless and frosty throughout.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a 19th century frontiersman who leads a hunting expedition through the rugged American wilderness. After leading his party to safety from a deadly Native American ambush, Glass is brutally mauled by a bear and suffers grave injuries. Glass’ half-native son Hawk and two volunteers stay behind to care for and ultimately bury their critically injured guide. Unfortunately for Glass, the most brash and unsavory member of their group named Fitzgerald [Tom Hardy], is one of his appointed guardians. Fitzgerald ultimately betrays Glass, killing his son Hawk and leaves Glass for dead in the hands of an unforgiving winter and the warring natives still on their heels. Driven by vengeance and nigh superhero resolve, Glass resurrects himself from certain death to find the man who took everything from him and extract his cold revenge.
The Revenant is actually a remarkably simple movie. It’s a chase film with gorgeous visuals and ghastly violence. Natives chase the trappers, Glass chases Fitzgerald and everyone’s out to kill or swindle the next guy. The movie stops every once in a while to soak in Lubezki’s unfathomably beautiful vistas, and goes on some weird spirit guide tangents with DiCaprio’s dead family for a moment or two, but The Revenant‘s finest moments lie squarely within the hunt. Searching for fortune, hunting for safety, longing for vengeance, the film’s characters are constantly moving, driven by both internal and external forces to trudge forward in the punishing heart of winter. DiCaprio is being praised for his extremely…intense performance, but for my money, his role is actually the least interesting of the film. Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Henry, the guilt ridden commanding officer who orders Glass be left behind and Will Poultier’s naive young Bridger are all fascinating characters who run the gamut of emotions that we only see in glimpses yet leave you wishing for more. The same can’t be said for DiCaprio’s barely two dimensional portrayal of Glass. He’s stoic and distant, then writhes around in agony and foams at the mouth for over an hour, then he’s back to stoic and distant. If anything, Tom Hardy’s dastardly yet strangely charismatic take on Fitzgerald is the best thing The Revenant has going for it [aside from Lubezki’s killer camera moves]. He’s clearly a deplorable person but his motivation for doing such heinous things makes him feel like a real person and not just a stock movie villain.
Initially, comparing The Revenant to The Hateful Eight made sense. Both are gargantuan films with gorgeous sights, gnarly violence and set in monstrous snow storms. Now, it’s become clear that The Revenant is the yin to Mad Max: Fury Road‘s wild yang. In Fury Road, Tom Hardy plays a gruff, one dimensional outdoorsman who says few words and forges through an unforgivable desert on a quest for vengeance and redemption. Sound familiar? Of course when Hardy did it earlier this year, it was wildly entertaining. Mad Max was all style and adrenaline while The Revenant is all style and adrenaline trying to hide behind emotional heft. While still a solid slab of film making, The Revenant would do well to lighten up à la it’s Australian doppelganger and remember where it’s bread is buttered [bear attacks, not spirit guides].