By Hugo Harris
Quote me on this: on February 28th Leonardo DiCaprio will receive his first Oscar. This is a guarantee. The conditions the actor subjected himself to in the making of The Revenant (a term for someone who returns from the dead) appear so extreme in this two and a half hour epic that it is inconceivable The Academy will not acknowledge his grit. In portraying a mostly fictionalised portrait of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper of the early 19th-century American West – left to die in a shallow grave by his fellow hunters – we don’t only see a brooding DiCaprio plunge himself into frozen rivers, but we also watch as he ravages raw bison liver. Bear Grylls is probably so proud of the performance that he’ll turn up to Los Angeles himself to award Leo the little golden statuette.
It is worthwhile watching the film on that basis alone; but whilst The Revenant is a perfect vehicle for the Titanic heartthrob, the film is unmistakably one directed by the ambitious Alejandro González Iñárritu. This is a factor that generates particular strengths and weaknesses. In being able to call upon back-to-back Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity and Birdman), Iñárritu has created a backdrop to Glass’s struggles that beggars belief. The frontier has almost regal qualities as sun flares shower its stark peaks and troughs. This flattering appearance certainly belies the imminent threats to Glass’s survival and achieving this deceit was no small task. The Revenant’s crew were only able to film for an hour and a half each day during their nine month shoot as it was determined that only natural light would provide the atmosphere its director craved.
Unfortunately, Iñárritu places too much emphasis on the immersive setting he created. There are only so many times that an audience can engage with an artistic shot of snow-enveloped trees and this is to the detriment of The Revenant’s momentum, especially when Glass himself is fighting on so many fronts. French colonizers, Native American tribes and bears all linger gratuitously, meaning long narrative pauses must be endured before one is allowed to anticipate the plot’s overarching threat again (a grizzly Tom Hardy portraying a scalped villain by the name of John Fitzpatrick). Moreover, the film’s ‘flashback’ scenes add little thematically, leaving a plot that feels paradoxically bare-boned and convoluted.
This is not to say that the film lacks nerve-racking moments. There are some standout sequences where the action is so visceral and the special effects so graphic that one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the experience. A recent article in The Guardian criticized The Revenant for being ‘meaningless pain porn’ and attacked reviewers who praised the ‘veracity’ and ‘rawness’ of the picture. Personally, I think that label misses the film’s basic premise. Be under no illusion Iñárritu’s latest ‘flick’ isn’t for the faint-hearted, but since we are rooting for Glass’s survival there is gravity to be found in the violence he commits. Arguably, in its very ‘function’ to deliver the platform for DiCaprio to win an Oscar, The Revenant forgoes the interesting context that would deviate criticism from his all-consuming role and the instances where he supposedly scythes down people in the ‘name of entertainment’.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia