The Revenant Overlong and Overrated

Directed by Alejandro Iñarritu
20th Century Fox, 156 minutes, R (Graphic violence to humans and animals, brief dorsal nudity)
* *

I didn’t see this film in the cinema for a variety of reasons, foremost the fact that I am not a Leonardo DiCaprio fan. I had also heard it was a confusing film and that it was entirely unclear whether DiCaprio’s character (Hugh Glass) was the revenant (ghost) of the title. I respectfully disagree with the last statement—I found it a pretty straightforward revenge film in which Glass’s memories are the only ghosts worth considering. Which brings me to my point: there’s not much in this film that’s worth considering. If you need more proof of how trite the Oscars are, DiCaprio was voted Best Actor and Iñarritu Best Director. Neither deserved a nomination, let alone the hardware. The real star of the film is the stunning landscape, with the cinematography Oscar the only one earned. This makes The Revenant a beautiful-looking slice of mediocrity, but little more

The Revenant could have been a lot of things: man versus nature, a study of frontier rawness, a probing of the destructiveness of greed, an exploration of geopolitical tension in the early 19th century, or musing over the question of who was more barbaric—Native Americans labeled as “savage,” or their white labelers. The Revenant does a drive-by on all of these, but it’s at heart a generic revenge film Scotch-taped to Jeremiah Johnson and Lawrence of Arabia. It is based on the real-life account of Hugh Glass (“loosely,” I would imagine), a frontiersman with reason to brood—soldiers ravaged and burned the Pawnee village where he lived with his wife (Grace Dove in a cameo) and son. His wife was shot down like a dog and his son, Hawk, badly scarred by fire.

Move the clock forward to the year 1823, a confusing time in U.S. history. The Louisiana Purchase was completed 20 years earlier, but the borders between U.S. territory and British Canada in the future Dakotas and Montana—where this film purports to take place—are unknown and of little concern. French voyageurs and American traders are rivals in the fur trade and make (and break) alliances with Natives in attempts to gain the upper pelt—except for the Arikara tribe, who is at war with everyone. Glass (DiCaprio) is acting as guide and tracker for an American group headed by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) that is surprised by Arikara raiders who kill the 75% of the party that didn’t manage to escape by boat. Glass knows, however, that the survivors are on borrowed time on the Missouri River and must—over the howling protests of dissidents led by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy–leave the river and make their way toward Fort Kiowa on foot to escape with their scalps attached.

As Glass leads the disputatious gang, disaster occurs when he is so badly mauled by a Grizzly bear that he is presumed a goner. Out of respect, though, Captain Henry asks for three volunteers to stay with him until he dies to give him a Christian burial. Naturally Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) opts to stay with his father. So too does young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald, who wants the extra pay promised for the task. Glass, however, takes too long to “die,” so Fitzgerald decides to speed the process—only to kill Hawk who tries to intervene while Bridger is out of sight. Fitzgerald drags Hawk's body from plain view and bullies Bridger into abandoning both men.

You pretty much know what will happen next, though you probably don’t expect to watch Glass endlessly grunting whilst pulling himself across the landscape covered in a bear skin. (Gee—I didn’t get the human-into-animal transference, Mr. Iñarritu. Can you make a more obvious man-in-the-state-of-nature metaphor, please?) These scenes are so interminably long that, to alter an old Hollywood joke, they make Lawrence of Arabia seem like an epic. Much more affecting scenes occur when Glass makes contact with a Pawnee man (Arthur Redcloud) who helps him. Later Glass saves an Arikara woman from voyageur ravagers and learns of the fate of his Indian savior. But all of this is prelude to the avenging Glass’s arrival at Fort Kiowa and his show down with Fitzgerald.

The landscape is stunning—though most of it was shot in the Canadian Rockies, not the Dakotas or Montana. It’s not enough to compensate for a film that that glosses all that is has potential depth and doesn’t need to be 2 ½ hours long in service of one man's  singular pursuit of another. Glass’s physical trials along the way are so harrowing that it’s hard to imagine any human could actually survive them. Perhaps we are to infer a magical realism quality to them, or that a dying Glass merely dreamt them—but no, we are aware that the historical Glass survived. In the end, the only revenant I encountered was the specter of the lost slumber in whose arms I should have been reposing rather than wasting my evening on this overstuffed, overrated Jeremiah Johnson outtake. 

Rob Weir

PS: Although the film claims to have used only robotic animals and special effects, these are very realistic. Those sensitive to animal (or human) violence should avoid this film.            

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