FILM REVIEW – THE REVENANT. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck. Written by Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity. 156 minutes.
It’s sometime in possibly the 19th century in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s THE REVENANT, somewhere wintry on the North American continent. A group of Indians attack a group of white trappers. It’s a pretty devastating attack and the decision is made by the surviving trappers to get out while the getting is good, and come back for the hides later.
Their guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) has the misfortune of being badly mauled by a bear. He survives but he’s in terrible shape. Realizing that carrying him is slowing them down they leave him behind with a few volunteers, including John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald is a bad one, and soon Glass, barely able to move, is all alone.
That’s the setting for this overlong drama of survival and revenge. If the problem with Quentin Tarentino’s equally violent 19th century melodrama, “The Hateful Eight,” is that everybody talks too much, the problem with “The Revenant” is that hardly anyone talks at all. We learn little about the characters (although we get a bit of Glass’s backstory later in the film). Consequently we have little reason to care what happens to them.
Instead the emphasis is on the visuals. It is stunning to look at. Iñárritu shot the film in natural light and since it takes place almost entirely in the wilderness the scenery is, at times, breathtaking. The bear attack is frightening and even though we know it’s all special effects, it’s clear that DiCaprio put up with a lot of hardship for the role.
But for what? As he makes his way back to civilization we see his various struggles but we don’t become engaged with his journey. Is he simply trying to survive? Is he out for revenge against Fitzgerald? His function seems to be one of helping Iñárritu get impressive shots of a lone man against a frozen and forbidding vista. With a running time of over two and a half hours, that’s asking a lot of the audience.
DiCaprio doesn’t so much play Glass as endure the role. He goes through a lot, and one wouldn’t blame him if he went from this to a light romantic comedy, preferably set at a beach. However while he effectively shows us a man with horrible injuries who keeps on moving, there’s not much more to it than that. As for Hardy, he’s got the showier role as the villain, and much of the film’s dialogue. In the absence of any other character with any sort of substantial role, he’s been getting a lot praise for a two-dimensional character. He’s selfish and self-serving, and beyond that we’re told nothing.
This is the action-adventure film as arthouse epic, where a tighter script and more clearly defined characters might have made it more engaging. Enjoy the scenery–and, perhaps, cringe at the violence–but you’ll be hard-pressed to come away from “The Revenant” with anything more than that.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.