Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest is a difficult film to pin down in terms of quality. The Revenant is at times an intense spectacle of intricately detailed action choreography, but it’s also a meandering slowburner of a film that constantly reminds you that you’re watching Important Art. Its cinematography (provided by master of the form Emmanuel Lubezki) is gut-wrenchingly beautiful, but is often employed for such an empty purpose that it leaves you feeling cold. It aims for High Art severity in its narrative consequence, but the grotesque savagery of its rape & pillage masculinity feels like a well-constructed exploitation pic from a bygone era. I’m tempted to group it in with other arty, all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go slowburners that were impressive but impossible to connect with (for me, anyway) like Only God Forgives & The Tree of Life, but I enjoyed too much of the film to dismiss it that easily. What is clear is that Iñárritu should at the very least be commended for not following up the critical success of Birdman (a film I was less than kind to) with a carbon copy of his most high profile film to date. I appreciate him sticking his neck out there, even if the results were the ultimate mixed bag of soaring successes & cringe-worthy missteps.
Part of what makes The Revenant so frustrating is its daunting 156 min runtime. The film’s opening battles between white men fur trappers & tribes of Native Americans and Leo DiCaprio’s protagonist & a pissed-off mama bear are breathtakingly savage, epically orchestrated orgies of visually striking violence. At the other end of the film, a concluding knife fight between DiCaprio’s beaten-to-shit protagonist & Tom Hardy’s selfish brute who wronged him ranks up there with Friedkin’s The Hunted as one of the best hand-to-hand combat scenes ever committed to film. The long stretch between those heart-racing anchors, however, are painfully in need of some shrewd editing. It’s tempting to think of The Revenant as a revenge film floating somewhere between a Western & an exploitation, but a majority of the film is a travelogue. DiCaprio, Hardy, two opposing bands of American & French Fur trappers (one headed by Domnhall Gleeson, who’s been batting a thousand lately), and a revenge-hungry native tribe all slowly trudge toward an inevitable climactic bloodshed (while still recovering from the one that opened the film) in an unnecessarily-detailed step-by-step procession. At times the film itself feels like DiCaprio’s broken protagonist, crawling & gurgling blood for days on end under the weight of an over-achieving runtime. Shave a good 40 minutes of The Revenant by tightening a few scenes & losing a shot here or there (as precious as Lubezki makes each image) & you might have a masterful man vs. nature (both human & otherwise) revenge pic. As is, there’s an overbearing sense of self-importance that sours the whole ordeal.
For the most part, though, the self-importance on display in The Revenant isn’t nearly as off-putting as it can be in Birdman. For instance, Lubezki’s camerawork is just as showy here as it was in Iñárritu’s Oscar Winner, but it ditches the single-extended-shot gimmick of that film in favor of a more tasteful line of highfalutin action cinematography. There are some gorgeous transitions from intense close-ups to long tracking shots in impossibly smooth single-swoops, but these shots are broken up in a way that Birdman‘s unrelenting gimmick of a structure allow for. Plot wise, The Revenant echoes the loud & obnoxious majority vs. the righteous intelligence of the few in the know that turned me off so sharply in Birdman (with Hardy anchoring the obnoxious brute end of that equation & DiCaprio serving as the righteous), but it’s not quite as much of a turn-off here. At worst, the preciousness & empty philosophy of lines like “As long as you can still breathe, you fight”, “Remember what mother used to say about the wind?”, and endless mutterings of “You are my son, you are my son,” (similar to the way Sean Penn whispers “Mother” into the void for hours in Tree of Life) are worth a hearty eyeroll or two. At best, they’re a nice break from watching DiCaprio gurgle & crawl his way through the snow. The dialogue in Birdman was much more off-putting.
Like I said, there’s too much of The Revenant that resonated with me to dismiss it outright. I’m more than willing to forgive an overwrought image or two (there’s a particularly egregious moment when a white bird emerges from a bullet wound, for instance) in exchange for the film’s more successful flashes of brilliance (like the bear & knife fights). For all of The Revenant‘s try-hard stabs at achieving High Art through hyper-masculine brutality, there’s a hell of a lot of praise-worthy ambition & striking imagery that’s well worth the patience required to make it through the perilous journey of its over-inflated runtime. Shorten some its travel time through montage & soften the cheese factor of its philosophical mumblings & I might even have heralded it as a masterpiece of brutish revenge cinema.