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The production history of The Revenant, the new historical adventure film by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, has received more attention than the film itself. The cast and crew faced abysmal conditions in remote parts of Canada and Argentina. Iñárritu insisted upon using natural light, and that limited time frame meant the production took much longer than expected. While these juicy details highlight Iñárritu’s commitment to verisimilitude, The Revenant suffers from the same problems as Birdman: While parts of it are thrilling, this is a bloated film by a director who is full of himself, and it shows.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper leading an expedition of young men through the American frontier. The film opens with a sequence of chaotic violence: Native Americans attack Glass’ camp, and danger seems to come from every angle imaginable. Working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu’s camera completes several panoramas; an impressive technique that shows off his eye for fight choreography.
Long shots of on-screen brutality also define the film’s key sequence, where Glass nearly dies in a vicious bear attack. The bear mauls Glass out of rage and motherly instinct, but Glass simply will not stop until the bear is dead, even if it means the animal tears his flesh, throat, and voice box. The men strive to keep Glass alive, except for John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who has had enough and conspires to leave him for dead. The rest of The Revenant follows Glass as he fights for survival, just so he can exact vengeance on Fitzgerald.
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The Revenant is at its best when Iñárritu matches pitiless nature against Glass’ stubborn resolve. In just over two and a half hours, one catastrophe after another befalls Glass. In one memorable sequence, Glass’ DIY solution to a gaping neck wound is so horrific and brusque that it would make John Rambo nod in approval. Indeed, the entire film is an extended riff on alpha male posturing set against picaresque winter landscapes, as if Iñárritu wants to redefine the phrase “rugged individualist.” Lubezki may win his third consecutive cinematography Oscar; the imagery is awesome in the truest sense of the word, and his technical skills match the director’s vision.
The trouble is that Iñárritu tries to wedge art-house pretense into a primal, pulpy revenge tale. There are long, languid sequences in between the action set pieces where Iñárritu and his co-screenwriter, Mark L. Smith, shamelessly ape the kind of obtuse reverie we might expect from Terrence Malick. The film, “inspired by true events,” supplies Glass with a Native American family the actual Glass did not have, just so there can be superfluous hallucinatory sequences where we come to understand the full meaning of his loss, or whatever. Through sheer immersion, the best genre films can transcend their trappings and become something more universal. Iñárritu has similar ambitions, but his approach is flawed. Elliptical, infrequent dialogue and a running time that indicates we’re watching a Serious Film are cynical ways to achieve that immersion.
Aside from the intense physical demands of the film, the actors are clearly game for this material. Gnawing and heaving throughout his ordeal, DiCaprio deserves the Best Actor Oscar just for putting up with Iñárritu’s bullshit (in addition to a visceral performance). Since Glass is alone and wounded for most of The Revenant, DiCaprio’s character rarely speaks, and when he does, it’s not even in English.
Metaphorically speaking, Iñárritu loves the smell of his own farts. He’s not content to merely direct his movie in a way that serves the story. With one tedious flourish after another, he wants the audience to marvel at his artistry behind the camera. Glass’ story supplies Iñárritu with enough material for a thrilling epic, yet Iñárritu pads it out so that The Revenant is more like a ponderous tome. Somewhere in this haughty art film is a relentless, vicious action flick that could go for the jugular.
The Revenant opens Thursday in theaters everywhere.