And for his followup to last year’s Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and should-have-been Best Actor winner, the astounding Birdman, acclaimed director Alejandro G. Iñárritu takes his crew to the northern edges of the world in the Western Canadian wilds to bring the viewer what feels like two and a half hours of Leonardo DiCaprio limping.
The semi-true story of The Revenant kicks off with a fur trapping company in the northern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase, for which Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) serves as navigator, being ambushed by local Arikara American Indians. The company is forced to retreat on foot with decimated numbers. Glass, foraging for food, is
raped mauled by a grizzly bear. After realizing he can’t be carried all the way to safety, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), along with Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), stay back to protect him until help arrives or bury him if he passes. Instead, Fitzgerald murders Hawk and leaves Glass in a shallow grave. Now a creature of pure vengeance, Glass digs himself free and crawls on his belly, wounds still festering, across the frozen wasteland to claim his revenge.
The Revenant was a daring film to produce and deserves all sorts of credit for the difficulty Iñárritu went through to bring it to the screen. Shooting took nine months. Cast and crew had a several-hour daily commute to shooting locations because they were so far from civilization, and when they got there, it was only to shoot for an hour or two at most. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki wanted to use natural lighting and create a 100 percent CGI-free movie. As close to the Arctic Circle as they were, that meant they only had a small window every day when the lighting was right to shoot. This script had been floating around since as early as 2001 because no one was willing to tackle the challenges it presented. This was a truly ambitious undertaking, and they pulled it off. There were some hitches, to say the least, but the fact that filming was completed or even attempted is itself an impressive thing. Ultimately, the film is crushed not under the weight of its ambition, but by poor pre- and post-production decisions.
The Revenant simply feels wrong. The movie isn’t as hardcore as the things that happen in it. Viewers can see Glass’ dire straits, but can’t feel them. The result is a strange disjunction between intent and result, with DiCaprio’s screams of agony and grotesque acts of survival often drawing chuckles instead of winces. This is the worst thing that could have happened to The Revenant.
There are a ton of little things that need to be different to fix this problem, and one huge one — the music. The film’s soundtrack is decent enough and would be great in a more surreal drama, but its use here is a poor choice. This movie would have been better served by a constant, eerie howl of mountain wind.
The sound mixing in general was its own problem. At times, it is literally amateurish — as in, “students who’ve never been paid did it ‘for exposure'” amateurish. Everything is the wrong volume. In some scenes, they can’t even sync the dialogue properly. That is such a basic error people won’t even watch the movie illegally over it. When this movie hits the Internet, thousands of pirates will probably delete their first several downloads because they don’t realize the movie’s actually supposed to be like that. In this respect, The Revenant is flatly embarrassing. I have no idea why they would go through that nine-month production and be willing to submit a final version with the sound this wonky.
The ending, which had to be shot in Argentina months after the rest of the movie because production dragged so long the Canadian snows melted, is entirely botched. This is a Roaring Rampage of Revenge/Vengeance Feels Empty story, and it does not end the way a Roaring Rampage of Revenge/Vengeance Feels Empty story should end. They had it all set up — Glass finds Fitzgerald, they fight, Glass wins, then he dies of his wounds or the cold or both. Simple. What actually happens is more overwrought, to the end that it ruins the entire movie’s narrative, in addition to taking it to a weirdly racial place.
The Revenant is definitely better than standard Oscar bait, but it was clearly made with awards in mind. The Academy loves to see its members suffer, and the mentality here seems to be to suffer as much as possible during production. DiCaprio personally was robbed after the performance of a lifetime in The Wolf of Wall Street, and the common explanation was that the Academy thought it was close, but Matthew McConaughey suffered more, so it went to him. But art isn’t necessarily made more beautiful by perceived suffering.
As much respect as you have to have for this production and that it was completed, facts are facts. Crew members were fighting and quitting mid-shoot. This movie’s $60 million budget more than doubled to $135 million when all was said and done, and up against The Force Awakens and the very similar Hateful Eight, there’s no way The Revenant makes that back. These are not things that happen when a director has the situation under control.
In a lot of ways, this movie feels like Iñárritu was showing off with the cinematography and long takes everyone loved from Birdman, regardless of what was best for this story. Many of the longer shots, the instruction appears to have been, “make it as long as you can,” with none of the intent that made his last film feel so complete.
Netflix’s Daredevil series is a good comparison. The series dazzled in episode two with a flawlessly executed fight scene captured in one five-minute long shot. Viewers were not only gratified immediately, but teased by what even more impressive cinematic feats were to come, but none did. Several scenes seem to be intended as one-shots, but weren’t completed. Instead of continuing until they got it right, they cut it off before it was over, or worse, put in a filler shot where they messed up and cut back to the long shot. Getting it perfect simply wasn’t that important to the showrunners. Many of The Revenant’s longer shots give off that same vibe.
This movie gets an A for effort. But as audacious as the production was, there is simply much more wrong with this movie than there is right.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Yeah, I bet you’re from French Canada. Probably like poutine and at least tolerate hockey. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.