Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)
by Alan F. Zundel
“The Revenant” is a spectacle; no doubt about it. With spectacular location shooting, spectacular action set pieces, and a spectacular recreation of the American frontier of the early 1800s, it will rivet your eyeballs to the screen.
It is less successful engaging the mind and heart. Not that the story is terrible, just overlong and so enthralled with the exterior of things that it doesn’t penetrate very far into the interior of the lead character.
That character is Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), loosely based on a real person who became legendary for surviving a mauling by a grizzly bear. In the movie that’s not all he survives. He is part Bear Grylls of “Man vs. Wild,” demonstrating how to survive off the land, and part Wile E. Coyote, shot at, mauled, smothered, buried alive, and flying off a cliff on a horse, only to rise again.
His nemesis, the Road Runner—er, John Fitzgerald, is played by the ever surprising Tom Hardy. Early on it is obvious that the belligerent, disagreeable, sneaky Fitzgerald is the villain of the story.
What’s that you say? Shouldn’t Fitzgerald be the Coyote, then? C’mon, everyone knows the Coyote was the real hero of the cartoon. We all rooted for him against that smug tongue-flicking Roadrunner. The whole pleasure in “The Revenant” is in finally seeing the Coyote catch up with that s.o.b.!
Glass is a guide to a party of fur trappers, led by Captain Andrew Henry. (Henry is played by Domhnall Gleeson, appearing in at least his third movie this year, after “Ex Machina” and “Brooklyn.” He must have a great agent.) Why a military officer is leading a fur trapping party is not explained.
The party is attacked by natives, forcing them to abandon their furs. Fitzgerald is really ticked off by this. The survivors are relying on Glass to lead them overland back to the military post, when the plan is interrupted by that grizzly I told you about. Glass is left behind with his son, another young man, and Fitzgerald to tend to him, but Fitzgerald murders the son and tricks the other guy into leaving with him. Glass is left in a grave to die.
The rest of the movie is composed of Glass’ long, hard journey back to the post and beyond in pursuit of the fleeing Fitzgerald. The fascination of it is in watching how he manages to drag his body through the woods, surmounting impossible obstacles, and waiting to see what he will do when he catches up with ol’ Fitz.
Like “Brooklyn,” another of last year’s best movies, it’s a simple story. That one was about a young woman moving out and finding love, while this is a revenge story. You know where things are headed, even though you don’t know exactly what will happen when you get there. It also has faint echoes of the classic Western “The Searchers,” with its themes of racial prejudice, family ties, and a man searching for someone for the wrong reasons.
“The Revenant” doesn’t have the depth and character complexity of the former two movies, although it makes a stab at deeper meaning. Glass has a past, which comes up continually in his dreams and memories, and serves to underline the strength of his connection to his son and his son’s late mother. But beyond that it is obscure who this man is and why he makes the ultimate decision that he does.
DeCaprio brings more emotional depth to the story than the script does, but the character’s ingenuity held my interest better than what passed for his inner life. Yet even that began to wear thin after an over-padded two and a half hours with him.
The action scenes were great, most of them with near-seamless use of computer graphics, although I found the bear less than convincing. The Canadian landscapes are, as I said, spectacular, and the cinematography breath-taking. (Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who also co-produced and co-wrote the movie, used long-time collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki as the cinematographer.)
All in all, “The Revenant” is memorable and entertaining, a movie event more than a great movie. Less would have been more perhaps, but it’s not every day that the movies serve you up a true spectacle any more.