Movie Review: The Revenant
By Ben Gruchow
January 13, 2016
Here is a genre film that positively cries out for the 70mm frame. The Revenant consists of a few characters drawn in broad strokes, performing the actions we’d expect of their archetypes. They occupy a story that, being critical, is fairly simplistic and a little pulpy, and sticks the landing more or less on a technicality. I’m not sure that the criticism matters all that much; the primary purpose of adventure cinema is to invoke feeling, and the film provides a visceral tether between us and characters that - on paper - have more in common with mythic figures than human beings.
That tether comes courtesy of two rather superb central performances, and a vividly realized sense of time and place courtesy of terrifyingly good cinematography and editing. And director Alejandro G. Iñárritu keeps an even handle on the film’s tone, shifting from realism to surrealism according to some wonderful discipline that’s always on-key without ever really announcing itself.
What happens on a storytelling level within this canvas isn’t too far removed, strictly speaking, from those high-adventure pulp magazines from the fifties; those were the ones with titles like “Red Tide of Death” and “Devil in the Deep” (the movie passes on the rampant misogyny, thankfully). Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an expedition guide with a hunting party somewhere in the northern region of the Louisiana Purchase, roughly where the Arikara tribe settled. Tensions between the two over pelts lead to a film-opening attack sequence that’s the first (and longest, I believe) of the movie’s four main structural set pieces. We get a few moments before this pandemonium; we’re introduced to Glass, as well as the captain of the expedition, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), but only enough to learn names and the broadest outlines of the main character’s relationships to each other.
The second structural set piece consists of the vicious mauling Glass takes at the hands of a grizzly bear, and it’s this one that sets the remainder of the story in motion. Grievously injured, Glass is left for dead by his none-too-willing teammates. We then follow him over a rather unspecified period of time as he attempts to find his way back through miles of sub-freezing temperatures and Arikara territory to his party’s barracks. The third and fourth structural set pieces constitute the most and least surprising instances of action, respectively, and I’ll not go into detail on them.
All very straightforward, very linear, very simple. One of the most impressive things about The Revenant, actually, is the way Iñárritu and DiCaprio coax such impact out of comparatively little; there’s not a lot going on here on a narrative level, and you can see the bones and cartilage of any number of generic man-against-the-wilderness movies poking through with some visibility.
This one doesn’t even necessarily rise up to their level on all counts; as long as we’re on the subject of the movie’s shortcomings, we might as well address the fact that the storytelling in evidence is really just average, with a couple of diversions that arrive at outright laziness. A crucial encounter toward the final act depends on an abrupt and obtuse character introduction; all it really does is give us a clear shape of what we can expect at the climax. The effect of the climax itself is wholly contingent on various parties arriving at a precise place at a certain time. There’s a tremendously thin line between thematic development and deus ex machine when it comes to a film like this; Iñárritu stays on the better side of that line, but only just.