Most of The Revenant is attempting to evoke a reaction from you — the audience — in hope that you’ll become swept up in the grandiose, sullen landscape placed in front of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Or that you’ll reflect on the higher powers, swimming around the film’s entirety, due to the overpowering emotions that come streaming out of you while watching Glass crawl through mud, eat whatever raw animal is in front of him, and attempt to claim vengeance after losing his son.
It surely knows what it wants to be — a quasi-western, sprinkled with a little Malick, that wants to be more like a joint journey through the woods with the main character rather than the melancholic mess that it turns into. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is again obsessed with the spectacle and truth between the lines rather than anything concrete or genuine, but even more so than last year’s Birdman, he wants so desperately for you to feel every moment with Leo — which while admirable — ends up feeling as hollow and confused as DiCaprio’s character at the very end.
The Revenant follows Glass, a frontiersman on a fur-trapping expedition in the 1820’s, who is left by his crew after being attacked by a bear, which leaves him with gruesome injuries. Dissatisfied with the whole affair — which also included losing most of their merchandise when a group of Pawnee Indians attacked the camp — is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who along with Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), elects to stay with Glass to see if he heals up.
Instead, Fitzgerald kills Hawk and lies to Bridger, telling the boy that Glass won’t survive and a group of the Indians that took their merchandise are coming to finish them off. This leaves Glass on his own, and without his son, setting us up for the long journey back to camp for the frontiersman.
Through the help of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (the real MVP of this film), The Revenant seems grounded in the world it is exploring. The use of natural light creates an environment that feels familiar (if you have spent extended periods of time in the wilderness), but fully magical — something can happen at an instance and the uncertainty that the woods present works naturally with the aesthetic of the film. This magic is short-lived though as Inarritu places us in the brutality of this expedition, complete with an action sequence filled with violence as the Pawnee tribe takes down most of the men on the expedition.
The action set pieces work, but there is something dissatisfying about The Revenant and its intentions to be a grand odyssey into the human condition, drive, and mind. DiCaprio is doing everything he can possibly do to find the real in this role, but nothing in it feels real. He chokes on food and is unable to keep it down one second and is limping away from an attack the next one, but he never gives the sense that he is a character within this movie — instead, feeling like a Hollywood actor in the woods.
This may be a poor excuse, but DiCaprio is an actor with the ability to transform into a role and drop the Hollywood persona completely. This is also a role where he allegedly is doing that more than any of his previous work and you feel that. He was lost in Wolf of Wall Street and Django Unchained (two of his recent roles), but here he seems desperate — not from the weather conditions, but to earn the respect of the group that has denied him for years.
It is a bummer that he is demanding all of the attention when Hardy’s performance as John Fitzgerald is equal (if not better) than DiCaprio’s work as he captures the vile, emotionless Fitzgerald with such a swagger and vivacity, that at times, you can’t help but become enthralled with his actions. The same can be said about Domnhall Gleeson and Will Poulter, who don’t gravitate to the level of DiCaprio or Hardy, but bring a grounded sense of perspective and reality to the film that struggles with walking that line.
The conditions were rough and the story is tragic — we get it — but for a movie that is showing us such imposing imagery, it doesn’t show us enough in terms of character or story to warrant much empathy. It is inhuman not to sympathize with Glass as he loses his boy and is left for dead, but he doesn’t offer much inspiration for emotional support outside of being the main character. Glass is a man who is good at what he does and has a clear sense of purpose, but that doesn’t mean I want to follow him to the ends of the earth. He is a regular man, but also harnesses a band of almost superhuman powers as he makes his way back home — placing him in an odd spot of being both regular and also mythic.
The Revenant has high aspirations, but again Inarritu misses the baseline point. The story is thinly-written and dependent on the audience’s investment in Glass’ journey to offer anything outside of a few grunts and spiritual lines. It succeeds in taking us along on this journey into the woods, but after awhile, we ask ourselves if it was something we really wanted to do in the first place.