Awards season each year brings a field of esteemed productions, marked by the presence of cinema’s most accomplished directors, actors and writers, or touching on stories that are vitally important socially and politically. After success at the BAFTAs, The Revenant seems poised to be the film that sweeps the most hallowed of the Oscar categories, and dominates as the most celebrated of award season. However, in my opinion, The Revenant truly doesn’t live up to such high acclaim, and proves to be something of a husk. A bubble that entrances with its sheen, but under scrutiny, can be so easily pierced and burst under the reality of its superficiality.

The Revenant is a tale of revenge on an epic scale. Set in the 1820’s, it follows Hugh Glass, a frontiersman on a fur trading expedition, who is critically wounded by a vicious bear attack. With his life hanging in the balance, a betrayal among his party leaves him left for dead and costs the life of the one thing left in his life he loves. However, Glass refuses to lie down and accept this fate, beginning a battle against all odds to find the man who took everything from him, no matter what it takes and how far it drives Glass away from humanity and into the depths of raw vengeance.

Visually, the film is a work of stark beauty the likes of which are rare in modern cinema. Rather than create stark contrasts of colour and light, Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu establish a moody, thick palette that emphasises both of the grit and the beauty of nature, an ethereal blur in which the characters are enveloped and whose corruptive nature becomes the real contrast of the film. No more evident is the synergy of these two creators in establishing a breathtaking but haunting spectacle than in the opening of the film. Composed with a sweeping elegance and executed with precision, the virtuoso camerawork on display as the attack on the camp by Native American warriors creates a breathless sense of furious energy, condemning the cycle of violence that divided the nation, even before the first shockingly brutal blows fall heavily on vulnerable flesh. Make no mistake, these opening scenes are masterful, and establish a visual tone with impudent brilliance.

Although the consistency of the visual tone never wavers and dazzles in its visceral beauty, one of the major flaws with film is, after this explosion of early creativity, the film steadily loses its momentum as events transpire. It is almost shocking how much the pace and purpose of the film dissipates, to the point where no matter how beautiful the imagery is, you can’t help but find the spectacle collapsing under the sheer lack of momentum, detracting from the drive of Glass’s desire to claim his revenge. Perhaps this is all a part of commenting on the futile nature of vengeance, however it truly only hinders the film and sucks the life out of it. Even when it does cut away to other events, the editing feels disjointed and rushed in its compositions. For a film with such a vital drive at the centre of its narrative core, The Revenant shares no such vitality and within that, I believe, loses direction and a connection to a sense of genuine experience.

Indeed, the film itself suffers greatly from never feeling genuine (ironic considering the fact it is based on actual events), with each dramatic point so strained under the weight of its own screaming importance, that they almost become predictable. Indeed, there is a sense throughout The Revenant of an entitlement, as if it feels the need to tell you it is a special film…rather than earn this right through the depth of ideas on display. Indeed, as beautiful as the film undoubtedly is, there is nothing unique about the iconography on display, and indeed more than any other of Inarritu’s body of work, The Revenant relies on the cinematic masters of meticulous studies of nature and man, and the fragile relationship before them, in particular Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrance Malick and Werner Herzog, to define its own identity. Stack up the masterpieces of these filmmakers, and The Revenant is a pale imitation of brilliance, not the masterpiece it so desperately wants and fails to be.

Another point of acclaim that unfortunately seems rather undeserved comes in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the beleaguered and vengeful Hugh Glass. Much has been made of the very real struggles DiCaprio endured to bring the character to life, putting his health and sanity on the line for the performance; however, it’s a showpiece rather than a transcendent performance. DiCaprio spends nearly the whole mammoth runtime recycling the same pained expressions merely altering them by degree and intensity of foaming saliva to indicate the depth of his struggle as he plods ever further into the next foible. As I watched the film, I felt no true connection to his pain and even worse; I never truly felt anything genuine in relation to Glass’s struggle. In DiCaprio’s defence, this isn’t really his fault, but rather the simple reality that Glass isn’t truly a character, but a vessel for an idea, a cipher for man’s battle against nature, and battle within his own dark heart. And yet his relentlessly dull march into pitfall after pitfall reveals the truth that the narrative is simply as vacuous and devoid as the open expanses Glass must cross, and for all the ideas the visually relentless seek to enforce, the spine simply is not there for DiCaprio to grasp onto. In everyway that DiCaprio’s performance as Glass is underwhelming, Tom Hardy’s performance as John Fitzgerald, the object of Glass’s relentless drive, is absolutely inspired. It’s a quiet but mesmerising performance, using his physicality not in the grandstanding of DiCaprio, but with meticulous perfection. A twitch here, a held stare…he’s both the most animalistic and most human of all the characters in the film. Within Fitzgerald, the real expression of how dark the nature of humanity can fester in the face of survival.

While The Revenant is a beautiful feat from a purely visual perspective, once you peel back the layers and peer beneath, the film itself holds none of the soul and honesty that has marked Inarritu’s previous work. Too often assimilating the iconography of Herzog, Tarkovsky and Malick to articulate the relationship between man and nature, rather than create a truly unique experience. Laboured, and at its very worst, indulgent to the point of arrogance, The Revenant is a work whose bark is bigger than its bite, and feels all the more disappointing considering the promise the union of these particular creative talents dared us to imagine.

Movie Review: The Revenant
3.0Overall Score
Reader Rating: (1 Vote)

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk