The light in “The Revenant” is astonishing. Renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, shooting on digital cameras, opted to capture the film’s almost exclusively outdoor setting in natural light, a stylistic choice yielding miraculous dividends, giving the icy blues of the sky on screen an almost cleansing sensation, and rendering the vast and empty mountainous panoramas in such exquisitely clear detail it’s as if we are in the pollution-free 19th century. The film’s sound (courtesy of Randy Thom and Martín Hernández) is equally acute, effectively approximating that sensation when the chill strips sound from the air and all you hear is the sound of your own breathing or footsteps in the hard snow. These moments achieve an immaculate authenticity, one that director Alejandro González Iñárritu is content to undermine with a story, as it were, that turns nature into nothing much more than an amusement park in which all “The Revenant’s” well-chronicled harrowing production stories become the rides. Step right up, step right up! Fall under attack by Indians! Plunge off a cliff into a towering tree! Eat bison liver……raw.
“The Revenant” is based on the true-life tale of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a frontier fur trapper who was mauled on an expedition by a grizzly bear and left for dead by a couple members of his party, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), only to crawl out of his shallow grave and back to civilization, an epic tale of human strength that all alone would seem enough to sustain a narrative. Apparently not, as instead Iñárritu and screenwriter Mark L. Smith give Glass a son (Forest Goodluck), who is killed by Fitzgerald, played by Hardy with a mouthful of marbles and big, beady eyes reflecting either Pure Evil or Nothing At All, which becomes the impetus for Glass’s revenge.
The real Hugh Glass did not have a son. And while supplementing a real-life story on screen with fiction is not in and of itself a bad thing, this grafting on of kin in “The Reverant” comes across wholly unnecessary, particularly because it seems of little interest to Iñárritu. In fact, he tries to peddle the idea that “revenge is best left to god”, preached by the occasional Native Americans that Glass encounters, who are less people than mere mystical figures, standing on the story’s edge, essentially shaking their heads and rolling their eyes as the idiot white men fight and squabble. You can hardly blame them.
Glass doesn’t so much unconvincingly interact with his son in their few brief scenes, he hardly interacts with his son at all, and Iñárritu’s attempts at Malick-y flashbacks to sculpt an emotional backbone for this barely-there backstory involving both Glass’s son and Native American wife are woefully unsuccessful; Iñárritu works better with a chase on horseback than with hair billowing wistfully in the breeze. This means that when the first part of Glass’s ordeal is done, and Frontier “Death Wish” takes over, the movie interminably drags to its conclusion.
At times, the film flirts intriguingly with the age-old tug of war between Human & Nature, Glass struggling to overcome his surroundings, never more so then in that buzzed-about bear attack, an incredible and brutal scene in which the bear growls and stomps, wanders away to tend to its cubs, and then comes back for more. The ordeal’s palpable terror stems from Glass’s helplessness; if we are conditioned to expect our male movie heroes to always have the upper hand, here he most assuredly does not, and has no choice but to lay there and wait until the grizzly’s had its fill. Just as good is a moment in which Glass floats down an icy river, escaping attackers, where it’s difficult not to find yourself simply focusing on the alluring snowy peaks looming in the distance, momentarily immune to his plight.
Yet for all the naturalistic beauty it conjures, Lubezki’s cinematography can also feel just as intrusive, often going all in on Iñárritu’s beloved long takes. Whereas these extended shots in the pair’s previous “Birdman” effectively evoked that film’s deliberate theatricality, here they don’t feel of a piece. Consider the shot in which Glass looms so close to the camera his breath is reflected in its lens, betraying the camera’s placement, a literal reminder that it’s there and you’re watching something being filmed, a simple series of escalating set pieces theoretically designed to test its main character’s mettle but really just meant to unleash “oohs” and “aahs” as evinced by the audience with which I saw the film that treated arrows puncturing skin and hands getting lopped off like gory carnival attractions.
This “Watch How We Top It” sensation is furthered by the film’s strange resistance to the idea of time lapsed or ground covered. There is no relation to the scope of his journey, merely an emphasis on its most arduous moments, a checked off list, Leo on an Iñárritu directed episode of Celebrity Double Dare. And though Leo throws himself into these challenges with admirable intrepidness, he never quite creates a lived-in character like, say, Josh Brolin in “No Country For Old Men”, who even before he got dialogue in said film found a way to create a person just on the strength of grunts and body language, reluctantly meeting the cruel world on its own terms. Leo becomes nothing much more than Iñárritu’s roller coaster tester.
It can be dangerous to discuss a film’s production in a critical evaluation of, but there is undoubtedly a reason why much of the media has focused its attention on the “The Revenant’s” torturous production, and why Iñárritu himself keeps bringing it up. And that’s because the movie, when you get right down to the gristle, is nothing much more than a grandiose testament to the moviemaking process.