Before seeing Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, I had to look up the word “revenant.” According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, it means “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.” This dictionary entry succinctly sets the stage for the film: The Revenant centers around Hugh Glass—an explorer, tradesman, and military man played by the ever-popular and Academy Award-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio—and his incredible survival in the harsh wilderness of the Midwest after being mauled by a grizzly bear and subsequently abandoned by his troops. The film also features British actor Tom Hardy, who plays John Fitzgerald, the dishonorable and cruel member of Glass’ platoon who abandons Glass. While the film succeeds in highlighting the tenacity of the human spirit and the unforgiving environment of the American landscape, it unfortunately suffers from a rigid storyline, a muddled use of Glass’ memories, and, for much of the film, a surprising lack of suspense.
DiCaprio’s raw and intense performance fuels the energy of The Revenant. From his unparalleled grit to his deep love for his son, we feel Glass’ struggle. DiCaprio adeptly harnesses the passion and fury of a bereaved father, especially in the scene in which an immobilized and mute Glass watches helplessly as his son is murdered for trying to protect him. With only his eyes, mouth, and grunts, DiCaprio captures Glass’ pain. DiCaprio also showcases Glass’ singular sangfroid and survival skills, as well as his own impressive physical abilities, in a variety of ways: hand-to-hand combat; withstanding harsh and freezing weather; sleeping in a gutted horse carcass. The audience experiences not only Glass’ determination and ferocity, but also the dynamic and versatile acting of DiCaprio.
That said, the other players in The Revenant are inconsequential, constructed only to keep the plot going. Even Hardy’s portrayal of Fitzgerald lacks depth. Depicting a ruthless and remorseless fighter, Hardy simply embodies the object of Glass’ revenge—nothing more, nothing less. Ultimately, just as Glass is alone in the wilderness, DiCaprio is alone on the set.
Two directorial choices by Academy Award-winning Iñárritu contribute to the film’s value. First, the slow pace of Glass’ healing brings the audience directly into Glass’ prolonged struggle to survive. The plot, rife with unforeseen setbacks and challenges, is purposefully plodding and painfully protracted in order to keep us grounded in what Glass endures; we must overcome the violent obstacles and extended misfortune with him inch by inch—or for us, minute by minute. The camerawork as well is superb, encapsulating the magnitude of a hostile environment, best exemplified by the severe conditions of a cruel winter. Thanks to the gorgeous cinematography, we have something impressive to admire as the rest of the film flounders.
The Revenant struggles as much as its protagonist. At no point in this 2 hour and 36 minute production is there ever a fear that Glass will die. We know from the start that there is absolutely no chance that Iñárritu will axe über-superstar Leonardo DiCaprio from a film with Oscar buzz, at least until (maybe) the last 20 minutes. Iñárritu is no Alfred Hitchcock. Consequently, although the danger Glass faced—numerous gun battles, a bear attack, falling down a waterfall, jumping off a cliff—is palpable, everyone knows Glass will survive.
The hallucinations and memories of Glass’ wife and his past are equally problematic. They are poorly constructed, add little if anything to the plot, and just confuse the audience more. These memories serve no real purpose besides showing that Glass has a troubled past. A big swing-and-a-miss from Iñárritu.
And then we have the reductive treatment of the dilemma facing Glass’ troops and Fitzgerald in particular: risk their lives caring for Glass or leave him behind. This is simply a dramatization of an ethical dilemma better suited for a college seminar on practical ethics. Although Fitzgerald is certainly a selfish and callous person, even a gentle and caring person would have had a tough time deciding how to act. Put another way: if one of your friends was totally incapacitated by a bear attack, and his or her temperature began to rise suggesting a bacterial infection, which you can’t treat because you’re not a doctor and you’re in the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter with no medication, and simultaneously, you’re being hunted by another group of people so finding safety is almost impossible and made harder by the fact that you are caring for your friend whose condition is worsening by the minute, would you save your friend? I am not here to answer that question for you (or decipher that run-on sentence), but you get the idea—there were other extenuating circumstances that led to Glass’ abandonment. Ultimately, the film fails to treat the morally ambiguous dilemma with the thoughtful consideration it deserves.
The Revenant could be a pretty good Buzzfeed article: “100 Different Ways Leonardo DiCaprio Almost Died—But Didn’t!” In the end, I wouldn’t encourage someone to see this film. However, like an alluring Buzzfeed article enticing mindless web-surfers and procrastinating thesis-writing seniors to view it, so too will Leonardo DiCaprio’s allure be too great for moviegoers to resist. As the name suggests, The Revenant will continue to return from the dead.
An overly violent depiction of Leonardo DiCaprio’s capacity to overcome.