Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman, Captain Henry, Cinema, Domhnall Gleeson, Film, Forrest Goodluck, Gladiator, Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger, John Fitzgerald, Leonardo DiCaprio, Movie Review, Revenge, Ridley Scott, The Departed, The Oscars, The Revenant, The Wolf of Wall Street, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter
“The Revenant” is the latest film from Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the mastermind behind last year’s Oscar Winning “Birdman”. Like “Birdman”, Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” has been nominated for Best Picture, and for my money it has as good a chance as any to take that prize (given the average competition that it faces). Iñárritu himself could also win back-to-back personal accolades for Best Director if the Academy decides that he’s worthy of such recognition, so there’s a lot riding on the quality of this movie.
The plot of “The Revenant” is pretty clear from the trailer, but I will sketch it out quickly in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet. A group of hunters led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) are roaming the wilderness in 1823 when they are attacked by Native American Arikara Indians; the hunting party is surprised by the attack and in the panic they lose many of their men. The group flee downstream on a raft, but knowing that the Arikara are still on their tail they decide to take a safer route on land, following advice from a member of the group who is familiar with the area – Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio).
As they attempt to put distance between themselves and the Arikara, the hunters face another set-back – Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear and left on the verge of death. The group try to care for him as best they can; carrying his weight quite literally until doing so is no longer a viable option. At this point, Captain Henry tells the group that there is a $100 reward for any man who will stay behind and care for Glass until his death; Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), stays back but doesn’t wish to receive any payment, and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a member of the group loyal to Glass, agrees to do the same. This then prompts the selfish John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to offer his services in caring for Glass, if it is agreed that he can have the reward money that would’ve been owed to Hawk and Bridger.
A deal is struck, but when Fitzgerald becomes wary that too much time has been spent caring for Glass he becomes agitated and attempts to speed up the process. Hawk catches him in the act of suffocating Glass, which leads Fitzgerald to kill the boy and hide the body. Fitzgerald then lies to Bridger who had been collecting water during the earlier commotion, saying that he doesn’t know where Hawk has gone and that there are 20 Arikara on their way. Out of fear and desperation Bridger agrees to abandon Glass to escape the Arikara, leaving his supposedly dying friend in a shallow grave.
From then on the story follows Glass, who survives the ordeal and sets out on a perilous journey to avenge his son’s death.
The story does take a little time to fully explain, because the details behind who does what at the start of the film are important given that Glass’ pain is the heart of the film. However, in reality the bulk of the film is quite dull and simplistic – the audience watches Glass as he crawls, limps, and finally walks through the snow, with nothing really happening in between. It’s all fairly standard, and there’s very little to sink your teeth into when you know that for the film to have any pay-off Glass has to survive, at least until he is face-to-face with Fitzgerald.
“The Revenant” plays out a lot like Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” when you consider its form – the hero is betrayed and loses everything, the hero triumphs against adversity, and then the hero gets revenge on his betrayer – there’s not much more to it than that; the bits in between obviously differ in the details, but you get the point I’m making. This isn’t necessarily an issue for me, but I don’t think that anybody should walk into the cinema and expect to have a unique experience.
I suppose if I have one significant gripe about the story it isn’t so much that it’s straightforward, although it definitely is, but rather that Fitzgerald’s elaborate lie doesn’t make a lot of sense when you really think about it. From my perspective it seems as though Fitzgerald should’ve finished Glass off once he killed Hawk, because his plan to pretend that Glass had died of natural causes was still achievable and to his benefit. It just doesn’t follow that Fitzgerald didn’t murder Glass when that was his plan before he killed Hawk, because his motivation was self-preservation and this would’ve been achieved by killing the only witness. He even would’ve had a better excuse for Hawk’s absence than the one he gave to Bridger in the film, because he could’ve said that Hawk walked off in a fit of grief having seen his father die! This, at least in my view, is a substantial hole in the story that many critics have either failed to recognise, or failed to bring up.
Now, there are a couple of ways that fans of this film could respond to this criticism. The first is to say that Fitzgerald didn’t really need to kill Glass given that he thought he was dying anyway, and that perhaps his story would seem less suspicious to Bridger with Glass still alive. I’ll admit that it would seem pretty dodgy if Bridger had turned up to find Glass dead and Hawk suddenly missing, especially considering that Fitzgerald was so aggressive towards both men earlier in the film. Still, I don’t feel like this is something that would’ve gone through Fitzgerald’s head, considering the way in which he was set up as a character – from my perspective I think it’s far more likely that the writers simply ignored this plot hole for the sake of their story.
The second response to the issue of Fitzgerald choosing not to kill Glass is to say that he might not have had time to hide Hawk’s body, compose himself, and kill Glass, before Bridger’s return. This is a much better response in my opinion, but I don’t think it does much to save the story from criticism; it might appease a viewer, but it definitely doesn’t deflect criticism from the writers or the director. It is more than possible that Fitzgerald didn’t have time to fully resolve the situation – Bridger was only getting water after all – but if this is a plot point that the audience is meant to pick up then it was very poorly conveyed.
So, after basically revealing that I don’t think much to “The Revenant’s” story, it should be clear that for me this film lives and dies on its technical aspects – cinematography, direction, acting, etc. Luckily “The Revenant” excels in these areas, which explains why the Academy have put it up for Best Picture; the music and the action blend together beautifully, DiCaprio is convincing (if not a little repetitive in his mannerisms), and it’s obvious that there’s a lot of talent behind the camera. It’s hard not to appreciate just how difficult some of the shots in this film must’ve been to get right; the way that the camera spins around during the chaotic Arikara ambush at the start of the film is fantastic, and the scene in which Glass is attacked by the bear is awesome! There are some genuinely brilliant moments in “The Revenant”, which is why the frequently dull and consistently underwhelming story frustrates me so much – I want to be able to champion this movie and tell everyone how worthy it is of the Oscar, but I just can’t bring myself to do it!
A lot of talk surrounding this movie prior to release revolved around Leonardo DiCaprio and his seemingly endless battle to win the coveted Academy Award for Best Actor, having been snubbed for his work in films such as “The Departed” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”. I think most regular moviegoers would like to see him win an Oscar sooner rather than later, simply because he’s been in so many good movies and he clearly puts a lot of effort into his roles. I’m pleased to report that he does well here, giving a lot of passion and commitment to the role, but personally I don’t feel that this is his best work. He does a lot of crawling around gasping for air, and he’s believable as a man out for revenge, but I really don’t think there’s anything special about his performance. He just doesn’t have that much to do, and I actually think it would be a bit of a shame if this was the movie that won him the award.
Tom Hardy is also up for an Oscar for his performance in this film, and he does what he does in a typically assured and controlled manner. His character is a bit underdeveloped for my liking, but the role is definitely suited to Hardy’s unique brand of menace. He’s a master at playing unhinged characters, good or evil, and he does his thing here perfectly well for the short time that he’s on screen. However, what holds Hardy back in this film is the fact that we don’t actually see Fitzgerald all that much after the first hour, and when we do he doesn’t come across as particularly evil given the situation he faces. It seems to me that everything that Fitzgerald does makes perfect sense apart from stabbing Hawk, but even that was done hesitantly and for the sake of survival – Fitzgerald didn’t want any nearby Arikara to hear Hawk’s cries for help so he had to do something! He’s a very selfish character with an abrasive demeanour, but he’s a long way short of being the malicious antagonist that this movie requires to make its premise compelling.
It would be easy to put my issues with “The Revenant” down to personal taste, given the fact that from a technical standpoint this is a well-made movie, but I really do believe that “The Revenant” is inherently flawed because of its feeble story. From where I’m standing it seems like there are an abundance of characters that appear in this film for a short time with more interesting things going on in their lives than Glass and Fitzgerald, and yet these characters are ignored so that the story can focus on a fairly standard story about one man getting revenge on another. We watch in anticipation as Glass treks across the snowy landscape, waiting patiently for something to happen, yet nothing ever does!
All in all, “The Revenant” is okay, but I think that expectations should be tempered for anyone who is looking forward to seeing it. “The Revenant” is a prime example of a film that you really have to think about before reviewing, because the impact that watching it in a cinema can have on you is apt to mask the fact that it isn’t actually a magnificent movie. Film is an art form, and it’s clear that Iñárritu and his team know what they’re doing when it comes to pleasing the Academy, but movies are also about compelling stories that are told in new and exciting ways; “The Revenant” falls painfully short in this area. There’s a lot to like about it from a film-lover’s perspective, such as Iñárritu’s eye for a nice shot and DiCaprio’s performance, but I still feel that the paint-by-numbers story will rightfully put mainstream audiences off.