Mark Reviews Movies

The Revenant (2015)

THE REVENANT (2015)

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Arthur RedCloud, Grace Dove Syme,  Paul Anderson, Lukas Haas, Brendan Fletcher, Krisoffer Joner, Brad Carter, Melaw Nakehk'o

MPAA Rating: R (for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity)

Running Time: 2:36

Release Date: 12/25/15 (limited); 1/8/16 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2015

The Revenant spins a tale of pain, suffering, and despair. It's a movie that is almost completely dedicated to communicating those qualities, presenting a world in which relief from misery is only temporary. At every turn—down any river, behind any tree, up any hill, over any cliff—lies yet another deathly challenge for our protagonist, a man whose every waking moment of agony is haunted by the anguish of his past.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the movie is that its depiction of survival against all odds isn't enough for it. This isn't exactly a one-note affair, because the movie does hit a second note, which has been hinted at through most of the story, during the final act. It's the old desire for revenge that drives this man as he makes his way through a deadly, untamed frontier.

The movie is such a grueling experience that it's easy to feel a little betrayed by the contrived simplicity of its ultimate goal. The character endures more injury and torture than seems humanly possible, and at the end of his journey, there is only the hollow promise of retribution. That's all there is to it, and that means there's a certain emptiness at the heart of these trials.

The movie's story is based on the true one of Hugh Glass, a scout for a group of pelt traders who, in 1823 in a region of what is today South Dakota, was left for dead by the rest of his party and crawled over 200 miles to civilization. It's one of those pieces of folklore that barely requires any dramatic license, although it's also understandable that an account would indulge in some modifications. These tales pass from generation to generation with minor alterations that become significant ones (This version, for example, has taken Michael Punke's novel of the same name as its primary inspiration). Here, we get a relentless portrayal of the physical damage that Glass endured—some of it founded in fact and other parts invented, albeit with a sturdy foundation in the particulars of surviving in the wilderness.

Glass is played by Leonardo DiCaprio as a resourceful, clever, and loyal man who comes to suffer with a quiet yet ferocious intensity. Suffer he does, too. The movie opens with an attack on the party of traders, led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), by a band of Native Americans who are searching for a woman from their tribe who has been kidnapped.

Almost immediately from the start, we get a sense of director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's intentions with the material. The point is to accentuate the immediacy and intimacy of story's various travails. With the aid of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu's camera moves freely through the scene of the ambush in lengthy one-takes, getting in close to a one, particular doomed individual (either a face or a part of the body that will be struck by an arrow or a bullet) before moving on to another. There is no denying the movie's significant technical merits. There are sequences of virtuoso staging and camera work on display here.

The next substantial sequence pits Glass against a mother grizzly bear when the scout finds himself in between the animal and her cubs. The resulting extended mauling (another impressive one-take) is sickening in its detail, as a fairly convincing computer-generated beast rips at flesh and crushes bones under its weight.

The encounter leaves Glass nearly dead, and after the terrain makes carrying Glass any farther impossible, Henry requests volunteers to care for the scout until he expires. John Fitzgerald (a very good Tom Hardy, whose character finds an almost philosophical rationale for his cowardice), Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and Glass' son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) agree to the duty, but Fitzgerald's own sense of survival leads to violent results. The broken Glass is buried alive but frees himself from his grave, beginning a long and arduous trek to avenge the wrongs committed against him.

To go into much further detail would be unfair, since the screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu is founded on the notion of constantly creating new obstacles for Glass to overcome. It becomes exhausting, which is partially the point, and then it grows a little tiresome. The individual obstacles may change, but the basic structure—of heightened stakes followed by brief respites—never ebbs. The movie's attempts to expand on Glass' as a character, through nightmarish flashbacks to the killing of his wife (Grace Dove Syme), are hardly illuminating and, instead, end up feeling like an easy way to convert the character's physical pain into the realm of the otherworldly. It's almost as if it is not enough that we watch as the man suffers and suffers again. His past, his present, and his eternity are founded on suffering.

In a way, then, the movie achieves its goal with a sense of absolute determination, but to what end does it do so? There is no counterpoint to its view of misery latching on to more misery as a way to reconcile that the world is a miserable place. The exploration of misery in The Revenant is expansive and formally pristine, but one can't help but feel that the movie's primary aim is also the cause of why its thematic scope turns out to be so limited.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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