Film Review | The Revenant

Visually impressive and meticulously constructed, Leonardo Di Caprio's latest bid for the Oscar is a merciless and immersive experience with, sadly, a hollow core

Sixth time lucky? Leonardo Di Caprio may finally nab the Oscar gong for The Revenant
Sixth time lucky? Leonardo Di Caprio may finally nab the Oscar gong for The Revenant

It’s interesting that two snow-bound Westerns are part of the Oscar conversation this year. Apart from being an ironic sting of giving a literally ‘white’ hue to the otherwise racially whitewashed awards ceremony, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant both evoke a harsher time in American history that however also slides comfortably into the generic template of a Western.

Taking its cue from the real life American fur-trapper Hugh Glass, The Revenant plunges us deep into the icy wilderness, but unlike the claustrophobic haberdashery in which we’re ensconced during Tarantino’s similarly set The Hateful Eight, Inarritu operates on a ‘go big or go home’ philosophy, as Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) has to negotiate not only through the harsh winter landscape but also face imminent attacks from various Native American factions.


What cuts the deepest (and Glass gets many cuts, pretty early on) is his abandonment by his fellow explorers, as he becomes a liability after being mauled by a bear. Though a small contingent eventually agrees to stay behind, their erstwhile leader, the cynical and greedy John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) may be more of a curse than a boon to the bedridden Glass.

Much has been said and written about the supposedly beleaguered production of Inarritu’s film ahead of release, and this is unfortunate for many reasons. For one, harping on about the hardship of the filmmaking process both distracts from the storytelling and serves as a remind of how pampered Hollywood types tend to be, and secondly, Inarritu’s ethical standards have now been dented by rumours that he treated his crew like crap.

The shell of what remains once the hype has been skimmed off is worth savouring, however, if only as an old-school Western done with clear cinematographic rigour and Inarritu’s undeniable artistry behind the camera. Its two-and-a-half-hour running time remains hard to swallow, however, especially given its sparse plot which gives license for vanities on both the part of the director and the actors – unsurprisingly, Di Caprio in particular, whose Oscar aspirations have become something of a long-running internet joke.

That aside, Inarritu’s watchwords have been ‘thorough’ (think Birdman’s constant tracking shot) and ‘uncompromising’ (think any of his previous films) so that if this is a conventional adventure story at is base, it’s one with a full-blooded gilding, where the violence is visceral and where the natural world pulsates with both beauty and menace.

Veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki returns to Inarritu following his involvement in Birdman, but here he’s allowed to channel another one of his previous collaborators: Terrence Malick. If anything, The Revenant could be an icy variant of Malick/Lubezki’s The New World (2006) in terms of how it all looks.

This ensures that the ‘period’ world is as immersive and filthy – not escapist and pretty. Along with Inarritu’s roving camera-work, these stylistic efforts are integral to the experience. The sparse script – penned by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith from the novel of the same name by Michael Punke – allow the visuals and the mise-en-scene to take over completely.

This is great in some ways, since Inarritu is in full command of the ambitious production and can deliver some rousing scenes, among them the expedition’s ambush by Arikara Native Americans which opens the film. Bombarding the viewer with an unflinching display of brutality that descends into deeper and deeper chaos, it’s not only an effective micro-illustration of the fog of war, but a statement of intent: abandon all hope ye who enter here. This is a world where the brutality of men is persistent, indiscriminating and unceasing.

The much talked-about bear attack, however, once again suffers from all the media hype that the film’s marketing team had set into motion months ago. Though it’s shot to near perfection thanks to a mix of real stuntmen and CGI, and although its early occurrence in the plot is necessary for the narrative to unfold as it does, in some ways it feels like an early climax. The ferocity of the attack ensures that we focus on it as a ‘riveting’ set-piece, and little else.

This is the ultimate giveaway. For all its aspirations towards cinematic high art – at least, Inarritu’s reputation coupled with the film’s much-advertised rigour – The Revenant remains a piece of Hollywood entertainment, though it may be dressed up in prettier garb than its pulpier counterparts. It’s best when it’s taken on those merits: an old-school Western that comes with an unfortunate sprinkling of ‘spirituality’, as Glass is haunted by evocative dreams and whispery voices invoking his past and some fortune-cookie wisdom.

It’s something that Malick did far better, though bear attacks remain, at this point, absent from his CV. 

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