Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Birdman puts him squarely back into awards territory with Western thriller drama The Revenant.
It's 1820s America. Frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) are working on a fur trapping expedition under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). When Glass is savagely mauled by a bear, Henry asks for two men to stay behind to tend to him. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) stay with him, but Fitzgerald betrays them, killing Hawk and burying the severely injured Glass alive. Glass hauls himself out of the shallow grave and sets on a trek to find the man who betrayed him and killed his son.
The film is 'inspired by true events' and 'based in part' on a book by Michael Punke- the 'in part' bit no doubt being that a) there once lived a fur trapper called Hugh Glass, b) Glass did get mauled by a bear and was left for dead and c) Glass then went to find the men who left him for dead. Everything else- the son, the revenge plot- seems to be completely fabricated. For information on the historical accuracy (or otherwise), this is a good article to start with.
I'll be honest, when I saw the first trailer, I was kinda underwhelmed and thought 'looks alright-ish, might give it a punt if there's nothing else on'. And then the awards praise started coming which sealed the deal. So I sat through it. Whilst I thought it was better than The Hateful Eight (which isn't saying much), it shares a lot of the same problems. Lots of shots that take too long. Script issues. A preponderence of overindulgent extraneous bilge that detracts from what is, at heart, a strong and intriguing narrative which a damn good edit could bring to the fore.
A lot of column inches has been devoted to the relentless masculinity and brutality of the film, being severally described as 'gut-churningly brutal' and 'meaningless pain porn', which led one American critic to ham-fistedly and narrow-mindedly suggest that this was not a film for the ladies. Is it brutal? Yes, in places, but- in my opinion- not relentlessly so (this is no Saw or Hostel). There are several main 'action' sequences- the opening attack, the bear attack, the final fight- which are apt to induce winces as flesh is shredded, fingers are lopped off and skulls are caved in. The bear attack is not massively prolonged but is tough to watch (even though you can tell the bear is CGI).
There's a lot of metaphor about the strength of trees and breath ('while you breathe, you fight') which is fine but Inarritu overeggs it with constant shots of both- DiCaprio's breath even misting the camera lens at a few points just in case you really haven't got it- and there are constant references back to both. It's heavy-handed and unnecessary. Give your audience some credit. And, whilst we're on the subject of unnecessary, the final shot of DiCaprio giving a thousand-yard stare right into the camera? Give me a break!
Much of the awards hype has been focusing on DiCaprio's performance and the fact that he's likely to finally win his Oscar; he's got the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards already. His performance as Glass is decent enough, hardly groundbreaking or revolutionary though. In my opinion, he's given better performances (and even been nominated for an Oscar for those performances; Howard Hughes in The Aviator, for instance). Being completely honest, of the Best Actor nominated performances I've seen so far this year, I was more impressed with the performances of Michael Fassbender and Eddie Redmayne than DiCaprio's.
I think my main issue is less to do with his performance- which, as I said, is decent- and more to do with the fact that there isn't much of a character to start with (a direct fault of the script). Glass is a good trapper; he loves his son and loved his wife. That's it. There's not much to get behind there. There's also only so much crawling and grunting he can do before it really starts to test your patience. You also have the issue that, no matter what peril Glass is placed in on his trek for vengeance, you know he's not actually in any real danger because the final pay-off has to be a confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald. So you can have him fall over a waterfall, have to hide from rampaging Native Americans or chuck him off a cliff and have him shelter in the gutted out remains of a horse, he's always going to survive (despite severe and almost life-ending injuries from the bear attack).
Tom Hardy is Fitzgerald, the primary human antagonist, but confuses wide eyes and a mangled and wandering Texas accent for menace. Plus, he's written so paper thinly as an out-and-out bad guy from the very get-go that there's no nuance, no shade. He's a racist, self-centred bully. You're just waiting for him to strike. Plus he gets to deliver the most trite and platitudinous message at the end: revenge won't bring your son back. Well, no shit, Sherlock. Once again, the script lets the actors down.
So, what's good? Well, once again, Emmanuel Lubezski's sublime cinematography serves the grandeur of the great outdoors to good effect. The supporting performances by Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter are strong, both good men stuck in a bad situation. The opening battle- where the trapper party is attacked by a band of maurauding Native Americans- is slickly handled and well choreographed.
A script is a blueprint and without a strong blueprint, the house is not fit to stand. Despite some strong performances and arresting visuals, the fundamentally flawed script (lacking in any kind of nuanced characterisation) renders this bland and the overextended, overindulgent run time renders it boring. Despite this, I'm sure that it will be lauded with awards (and, in all seriousness, it should win the Oscar for Best Cinematography) and DiCaprio will almost certainly get his Oscar, thus rendering an entire raft of Internet memes completely obsolete.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5