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THE REVENANT Movie Review – And the Oscar Goes To…

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Leonardo DiCaprio may not have suffered for our sins, let alone died for them (on screen), but he’s certainly done both or nearly both (again on screen) to acquire the most coveted of coveted acting trophies, the Academy Award for Best Actor, an award that’s eluded him for the better part of two decades (in comparison, other, perhaps more talented actors have had to wait an entire lifetime before becoming personally acquainted with the golden statuette that represents the pinnacle of commercial filmmaking – or at least that’s what some argue or even believe). Given the sheer amount of physical suffering – and quite possibly emotional and mental suffering too – DiCaprio agreed to undergo to emulate the real-life character, Hugh Glass, an 1820s fur trapper, guide, and frontiersman who overcame a bear attack, abandonment by his fellow trappers, an array of life-threatening injuries that would have ended much lesser men (only the strongest survive), and return to civilization and seek revenge on the men who abandoned him, at the center of Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (Birdman, Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros) latest film, The Revenant, a loose adaptation of Michael Punke’s 2002 novel.

Unfortunately, The Revenant falls noticeably short of the complex, layered, and profound film Iñárritu intended. It’s the simplest of survival stories, succeeding or failing not on narrative originality or dramatic invention, but purely on imaginative execution. Iñárritu’s ambitions, however, dictate that heavy subtext and even heavier themes mixed into the film, including the United States’ relentless, relentlessly brutal westward expansion, profit-oriented capitalism, and the destructive ideology (“Manifest Destiny”) used to justify the extermination of the Native-American population through war, genocide, and starvation. Iñárritu not only introduces a Native-American wife (Grace Dove Syme) and son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), narrative backstory completely missing from Punke’s historical novel or Glass’ real-world 19th-century counterpart, but makes the loss of both (his wife via hallucinogenic flashbacks, his son as a young adult), the guiding motivation for Glass’ seemingly endless trek through the wilderness to find John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the half-deranged, half-scalped trapper, who murders Hawk while an injured, near-death Glass helplessly looks on.

 

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After a thrilling, gory, spectacular escape from the Rhee, a local Native American tribe, Glass, his son, Fitzgerald, the expedition’s leader, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), and the remaining survivors find themselves on foot, forced to abandon their boat and the fur pelts they’ve spent weeks, if not months, harvesting from the local animal population. That conflict over resources provides The Revenant with another, relatively under-developed theme. Before long, the survivors are long past arguing about profits and shares and simply hoping to survive. When Glass finds himself between a mother bear and her cubs, he’s immediately aware of the personal danger, but he doesn’t respond fast enough. The bear mauls him repeatedly over the course of several minutes (it feels significantly longer). Iñárritu doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of the attack, the deep gouges of flesh torn and torn away, the blood pooling where flesh once existed.

Glass outlasts the bear, but the magnitude and severity of his injuries suggest he won’t live long. Incapable of transporting Glass back to the closest fort, Henry does what any leader of an 1820s expedition might do: He leaves Glass behind, with Hawk, Fitzgerald, and a young, inexperienced trapper, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), to watch over Glass until he dies and give him a proper Christian burial. When Glass doesn’t die right away, Fitzgerald tries to hasten the inevitable, but fails, leaving Hawk dead (for interfering), and Bridger somehow none the wiser. As Fitzgerald and Bridger make the difficult, exhausting return to the rudiments of civilization, Glass literally crawls out of his grave. Due to a seriously injured leg, he continues crawling across the snow-hardened ground, first to mourn the son he swore to protect but couldn’t and later inch by painful inch in sub-zero weather conditions, driven by two, primal instincts: self-preservation and revenge.

 

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The Rhee are never more than a day or half-day behind Glass, giving Iñárritu and two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life, Children of Men, The New World), the perfect opportunity to stage several additional set pieces, one involving a freezing, raging river (and a waterfall), and later, after a near-rescue by an empathetic Native American goes predictably awry (blame goes to the murderously racist French fur traders), another near miss over a cliff and into the literal belly of a newly dead horse to keep warm during another freezing night (shades, intentionally or not, of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back). It’s nearly impossible to argue against the skill, talent, and craft behind each set pieces, especially given the severe weather conditions that led to several reports of mistreated crew members and crew defections. Iñárritu seems to believe that suffering for art (an old-school idea if there ever was one) – if indeed, The Revenant qualifies as “art” broadly or narrowly – is an absolute necessity. With the help of Lubezki’s ravishing cinematography (using natural light and “magic hour”/twilight shooting) and a stellar cast led by a committed DiCaprio (working hard as ever for his first Academy Award win), The Revenant succeeds visually without qualification or reservation, but it’s also in service to a relatively thin, simplistic survival narrative and over-obvious, surface-deep themes.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.