‘The Revenant’ Review: This Revenge Western Is Beautiful And… Uh… Well, It’s Beautiful Anyway
How good does a movie have to look to offset its other deficiencies? The Revenant is as beautiful a movie as has ever been made. The photography by master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is inconceivably gorgeous; sweeping wide shots that juxtapose tiny, insignificant men against the overwhelming grandeur of nature, close-ups so intimate they seem like invasions of the actors’ privacy, and action sequences of shocking violence. You want to take every establishing shot and hang it on the wall of a museum, or at least make it your new desktop wallpaper, where it could be admired in perpetuity for its enormous aesthetic value without having to trudge through the lifeless 156 minutes around it.
The hero of this torpid journey through the wilderness is Hugh Glass, a real-life figure of the American West whose story was told in the 2002 novel The Revenant by Michael Punke. In director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s version, Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, works as a scout and guide for a party of trappers. The group loses more than three quarters of their men and most of their supplies in a raid on their camp by Native Americans; the 10 survivors include the company’s leader, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), Glass, his half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a cynical, greedy, racist frontiersman who distrusts Glass and his boy.
Things go from bad to worse after Glass is brutally mauled by a bear in a shocking sequence captured entirely in a single (though digitally enhanced) long take. Near death, the trappers try to carry Glass to safety but eventually the terrain gets too treacherous and he’s left behind with a small party that includes Hawk and Fitzgerald, who, at his first opportunity, murders Glass’ son and leaves his father in a shallow grave. But Glass survives and, fueled by his thirst for revenge, literally drags himself across the West to find and kill Fitzgerald.
Glass’ battle with the bear, and the opening raid on the trappers’ camp are both incredible, intense scenes, and there are a couple other isolated moments of startling ferocity. But while Glass’ focus remains completely on chasing Fitzgerald, Iñárritu’s own aims feel much more diffuse. After those early scenes of blood and thunder, The Revenant’s quest for vengeance becomes almost mechanical, as DiCaprio struggles, grunts, and groans his way through an endless stretch of wilderness. There’s no issue with his commitment to Iñárritu’s vision; DiCaprio’s constantly caked in gore and dirt, crawling through mud and snow. At one point, he even guts a horse, Tauntaun-style, so he can use it as a sleeping bag. (Talk about an Oscar clip!). The issue’s with Iñárritu’s vision, which sees the unspoiled beauty of the Old West with absolute clarity, but grows clouded whenever humans enter the picture.
DiCaprio’s absolute dedication notwithstanding, he’s not called to do much beyond fevered seething, and Hardy, who might be allergic to speaking clearly on camera, delivers another of his trademark mumbly lunatics. (Maybe 40 percent of his dialogue is actually intelligible). With few other actors to bounce off or emotional notes to play, Glass’ hunt becomes a repetitious slog, a feeling that’s only intensified by the film’s dreary, droning score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner, and Alva Noto. After the final fade to black following over 150 minutes of wandering, the lingering impression left by The Revenant are those lovely images and not much else.
Watching DiCaprio scratch and claw his way through the frontier leaves you searching for a point to all this suffering. Perhaps, for Iñárritu, the director of bleak movies like 21 Grams and Babel, that is the point; to depict life’s myriad complexity as a journey through inexplicable suffering. The Revenant gives you plenty of time to mull that possibility, along with the one that Iñárritu has essentially made Heaven’s Gate 2.0 — an impressive, overwrought, bloated, inaccessible Western from a director cashing in every last bit of goodwill he earned from winning a Best Picture Oscar. If Iñárritu wanted to show how life on the frontier was miserable and monotonous he succeeded — by making a movie that is miserable and monotonous. Some of the greatest cinematography in history can’t change that fact.