By the fourth scene of Leonardo DiCaprio eating a raw animal, I found myself saying, “Yes, yes. But what does it all MEAN?”
The Revenant has grand ambitions it never lives up to. I think director Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu thought he was making a Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog film and had something profound to say about man’s relation with nature.
He doesn’t succeed because he does not examine the larger themes of the story. It’s a vengeance thriller at its core, and its successes as a vengeance thriller should not be ignored. But the film constantly reminds you of its ambitions to be something greater than it really is. I didn’t look forward to beautiful nature scenes because I realized they were working against the film.
The story of Hugh Glass (played here by Leonardo DiCaprio) certainly does make for riveting cinema. After a bear attack, he was left for dead by his fellow pelt traders in the woods. He survived after crawling for two hundred miles to the nearest fort. The film adds additional motivation to Glass’s trek by having John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) murder Glass’s fictional son. He’s seeking to not only survive but to punish Fitzgerald.
A film like this really puts my criteria of a good film to the test. So, I’m going to answer each of my three questions in succession.
First, does the movie provide a satisfying emotional experience that I could not ever have in my own life? The Revenant passes this test with flying colors. Starting with the shocking, sanguine bear mauling scene, it’s impossible not to feel Glass’s struggle as he tries to get back to civilization. There are scenes of Glass cauterizing the wound on his neck with gun powder, scenes of him catching fish and eating them alive, and endless scenes of him trying to crawl up mountains with an injured leg. Each time, I believed that DiCaprio was actually undergoing these struggles. The bear mauling scene in particular deserves examination. Glass is completely helpless against the bear as it repeatedly sinks its claws into his body. The camera does not focus on the attack (we see Glass’s wounds later) but on his face as he tries to fight against death is an incredible piece of cinematography supplementing an incredible performance.
So, gold star Revenant.
The second question I have on my test is, “What is this film trying to do?”
And here’s where I hit a wall, because I cannot answer that question.
On its surface, the film is a tribute to the works of Jack London. It’s about how there are times when man must embrace his primal nature if he hopes to survive against all odds. But at the same time, Glass fights against becoming an animal. He still thinks of his duty and shows kindness to the Native Americans he meets. He also comes across as far more human and caring than some of the French soldiers who openly execute the Native Americans they meet. There’s a subplot of a tribal chief who is attempting to recover his daughter from French soldiers. DiCaprio manages to assist them, even in his weakened condition. We get a definite hero faced with impossible odds and want him to succeed in his quest.
But there are numerous dream sequences that show the film has ambitions beyond a simple adventure story. These sequences are where Inarritu decides that he is trying hard to make a Terrence Malick film, examining the beauty of nature while trying to understand the ugliness of man. But Malick always keeps that idea first on his mind when he makes a film. Inarritu does not here. At the very least Inarritu never contrasts the shots between man and nature in the same way that a Malick does. And he never lets Leonardo philosophize about his predicament. Everyone in Malick’s films has something on their minds as they tried to figure out what was happening around them. Not Glass and nothing we see in the film supports anything else. Fitzgerald does have a story about a friend who found God in the forest, but it’s treated as a joke and is meant to talk about his character, not any larger themes.
Because I do not know what the film is trying to do, I cannot answer my third question – “Does this film succeed at what it set out to do?” But there were several moments that undermine Glass’s story, so I’m not sure if it even works as an adventure.
For one, I actually found Fitzgerald a more engaging character. He is given more of an opportunity to talk about his place in the world and about his desires. He is greedy, yes, but there is the sense that he arrived at that conclusion on his own and was not forced into it by the demands of a screenplay. Also, his action of killing Glass’s son was an accident rather than a malicious action. I almost wanted the film to give him equal focus as it did Glass.
Additionally, the film has subplots that never really go anywhere. I mentioned earlier that scenes follow a chief trying to find his daughter. This subplot is only tenuously linked to Glass’s story and has no real emotional impact on the overall work. Yes, it does lead to an amusing shot at the end of the film, but it’s the equivalent of waiting a month for a restaurant reservation only to learn that they only have pulled pork available on the night you visit.
Given these, I guess I can overlook my fourth question – “Was that thing the film set out to do worth doing in the first place?” There’s obviously a great story here, but given how unsure I am about The Revenant’s ultimate goal, I don’t think I can begin to tackle this question at all.
The Revenant is certainly not a bad film. It works as a pure Jack London-esque wilderness adventure and is well made. But I was constantly distracted by the film insisting it was more ambitious than it really was. It was perplexing how much the filmmakers insisted that they had something more important to say than they really have. It makes the good elements of the film still seem like failures.