If anybody ever doubted Leo’s grunting abilities, let him be silenced now. In The Revenant, Leo (as Hugh Glass) grunts and crawls his way into our hearts, and we cringe so often that at a certain point, at least at the showing I attended, the audience starts to grunt too – or rather groan. It’s a pretty incredible performance, and to call DiCaprio committed would be an insult, but is it too much for anyone to take?
The Academy doesn’t seem to think so. Or the HFPA. Or SAG. Things are going pretty well for The Revenant. I went to see it shortly after the Globes, and I was expecting to be a little bit horrified and more than a little bit impressed. Maybe it was all the buildup, but The Revenant was a disappointment. After being dazzled by Birdman last year along with everyone else, I expected my brain to be stretched in other, nearly equally interesting directions while I watched The Revenant, but I found myself confused rather than challenged.
In Birdman (which I’ll be using for some comparisons because I can’t help but have it in the back of my head), Iñárritu shows off for good reason. The virtual lack of cuts in the film makes us feel part of the swirling artifice of the theater world, and we are simultaneously drawn in and distanced by it, so that we are both part of the action and aware of its falseness. In The Revenant, Iñárritu makes puzzling use of very long tracking shots once again, with mixed results. While we do feel, during the early battle scene in which this method is most prominently used, the chaos and unpredictability of the battle, it feels not natural, as one might expect in a film so rooted in harsh realities and nature, so much as virtual; you know, like a video game (complete with blood that splatters onto the camera lens). I’m not alone in having experienced this sensation, so you have to wonder if it was a mistake. If it wasn’t, what could be the point of taking the audience emotionally out of this battle scene and drawing attention to the unreality of it?
The rest of the film is brutally intimate, and the cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki’s) is generally gorgeous, emphasizing the enormous beauty, vulnerability, and power of the natural world. If the early battle scene was made purposely disorienting in its unreality, was it to contrast with the stark (and naturally lit) realness of the scenes more focused on nature?
Anyway, besides the weirdness of some of the camera work, there’s the long, harrowing story. Despite the groaning, the audience I was part of never seemed to become really disengaged. At one point, when Hugh Glass was trying to catch a fish with his bare hands, the guy next to me inched up literally to the edge of his seat and, once a couple of fish had slipped through Hugh’s hands, moaned, “Aw, come on!” This is a film that exasperates, and maybe that speaks to its power to wrap you up in Hugh’s suffering. Maybe it also means it’s a bit repetitive. It can be exhausting to have white knuckles in just about every scene; to have every simple task the protagonist tries to carry out turn into a nearly insurmountable obstacle until he finally, sweating, grunting, and covered in spittle, gets it done.
Despite all this, the pulsing, constant presence of nature is what the film is really about to me. DiCaprio doesn’t belong in this world; none of the white men in the film do. I’m not quite sure, after watching, what justifies focusing this story on a white male protagonist. You could certainly argue that, by giving white audiences a character that looks like them, the film’s look-the-hell-out-for-nature message would be more directly received. It’s just a little counterintuitive, however, to give us only fleeting glimpses of native people and their land as mysterious and usually threatening, if the film aims to have us sympathize with them over the intruders.
Finally, the ending. I was baffled by it. When it looked like the film might end abruptly with Hugh’s anticlimactic murder, I felt briefly betrayed, but I would have happily taken that rather clever concept for a final moment that would have worked with the hard, unfair world of the film, over the pretty ridiculous, unnecessarily punctured-hand-filled fight that actually follows. The Native Americans get their final scene, in which they scalp Tom Hardy and walk off majestically, leaving Leo with a respectful look – which really feels more meant to show us how untouchable and heroic he is than to say anything about them. It feels, more broadly, like the wrong story is being told (which is, of course, not at all unique to this film).
The highlights: the kids (Will Poulter and Forrest Goodluck), who you really wish could find a decent role model; the adorable Appaloosa who looks hilariously casual as he runs off a cliff trailed by a murderous mob; the bear, who is exceedingly well-rendered (and rounded – we feel sorry for it while it’s mauling the protagonist) and makes me never want to go into the woods again; the cinematography, which is nuts; and last but by no means least, Tom Hardy, who as far as I’m concerned absolutely steals the show, especially with his comedy (I’m serious), and is a completely legitimate Oscar contender.