*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
There are some movies that are so crafted, so beautiful, so fine-tuned that you know they are there for the sole purpose of being nominated for an award of some kind, probably an Oscar. That certainly seems to be the case with The Revenant, where the story is itself is a little slow and trying, but the majesty of the shots and the quality of the music and cinematography sort of makes the viewer forget all that. That being said, there are also certain kinds of fans for movies like this- The Revenant will always be beautifully shot and edited, and maybe someday it will be used an example in film classes for students, but for regular home viewing, it might be a little lacking, since the majestic shots keep adding up and the dialogue and storyline are often neglected in favor of the Oscar-nominated glory.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a trapper hired with his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) to guard and guide trappers back to their outpost after they are attacked by a Native American tribe searching for their chief’s missing daughter. Glass is mauled by a bear before reaching the post, and the team decides that three men shall remain behind with him while the others continue to traverse the landscape to bring back help. One of the caretakers, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) decides that Glass won’t survive and leaves him for dead, lying to fellow caretaker Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and killing Hawk. Spurred on my his powerful motivation for revenge, anger and passion to live, Glass travels across the wilderness in the dead of winter, avoiding the pursing tribe and French trappers working with them, to find Fitzgerald and make him pay for his betrayal.
This film was shot in Canada and Argentina, and it is not shy about giving shot after shot of these beautiful, natural locations. The first shot is several minutes of flowing water- that’s it. The audience just watches and listens to the sound of the water and marvels in the beauty of the nature we’re about to see throughout the film. There is snow and trees and reeds blowing in the wind, and the natural majesty of it all is breathtaking, even though the audience is viewing all this secondhand on a big screen. The Revenant is quite literally visual poetry, intensified by the natural lighting director Alejandro Iñàrritu used for all but one shot. Then, like nature does, peaceful and beautiful quickly becomes violent and hard and almost painful to watch, and The Revenant is not shy about making the transition quickly and majorly. The opening shot of flowing water and peaceful, quiet hunters is soon taken over by an Indian attack, full of blood and screaming and arrows and bullets, where a large company of men is reduced to ten within fifteen minutes. It’s almost like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan shot of D-Day in the incredible amount of violence that ends a little more quickly. And that’s not even getting started on DiCaprio’s bear attack scene, which both seems to drag on painfully and yet end abruptly enough that the audience is left blinking and wondering what the hell they just saw.
The acting in this movie is also fantastic, but not for the reason you might think. Now, I can’t say for certain because I haven’t seen Trumbo, Steve Jobs or The Danish Girl, but I would be more than willing to bet that DiCaprio is the Best Actor nominees with the fewest lines in his own movie. After the bear attack he spends a lot of time healing, which means that he cannot speak, and when he does eventually regain his voice, it’s weak and raspy, and he’s on his own so much that he doesn’t need to speak. Even Matt Damon in The Martian, though he’s on a completely different planet, has more people to talk to than DiCaprio does in this film, and so the latter is made to rely on physical expressions and manifestations of his emotions (mostly pain). I was also very impressed with Poulter, the young trapper that blindly followed Hardy’s character into abandoning DiCaprio in a shallow grave, though he never stopped feeling guilty for it. Though not given generous amounts of screen time Poulter’s visual change between the innocent boy trapper who eagerly volunteered to stay with his injured companion to a hardened, rougher man who traveled for weeks with a man who lied to him, threatened him, and left their charge to die a slow death in the forest. Hardy’s hardened, Platoon-like Fitzgerald is fun to dislike, but also more of a symbol for revenge than really a character, though his story about surviving a scalping is definitely a nice (if not cringe-worthy) moment.
Where The Revenant becomes more of a Oscar film and less of a film to be enjoyed by all lies in the beautiful cinematography. Because it wants to throw in as many wonderful shots of the countryside that it can, the story begins to feel like it’s being dragged out for the sake of all those beautiful shots. Glass’ hazed dreams of his dead wife and son speaking in their native tongue are frequent (a little too frequent) and last several minutes, which feels too long in this two and a half hour movie. Then the Native American tribe who is following the trappers and later DiCaprio feel like they are forcing the plot without a real purpose. I do understand their motivation and they are needed for the plot, but it seems very forced and only occasionally pays off with an action sequence to break up the pretty scenery shots. Though the story is true, and I’m sure points have been embellished for the film’s sake, it just seems like the story was given half a thought and the cinematography is the only reason it was filmed at all.
Long story short, you should definitely check this film out once in theaters- after that, if you’re not really an Oscar fan, you may not want to see it again, but this one won’t be as fun on your couch at home.