Sometimes things get away from you. The Revenant release was a very limited qualifying run for the first two weeks, which made it difficult to see, and then I stalled a little bit on my own, but now that The Anticipated 2016 is up and running, it’s time to finish this last bit of 2015 business. Of course, this film is also one the top contenders at the upcoming Oscars, so you can also consider this part of Oscarathon 2016. But those considerations aside, how did The Revenant hold up as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow up to Birdman? Let’s take a trip to find out.
The Revenant (December 25th, 2015)
How was it?
This is such a contradictory movie. The first 30 to 40 minutes are stunning. The directing, acting, cinematography, and editing during this period are absurdly good. If the movie had continued on this tack for the entire runtime, The Revenant would have easily been the best film of the year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t regain the same heights until the last two minutes of the movie. Instead, the bulk of the film is an hour and a half of meandering pretension that, while not bad, is nothing special. Don’t get me wrong, the film’s craft is still quite good. It’s just also lifeless.
The story starts with interesting shifts in perspective, as we move between not only the main characters–Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson)–but also the Native American tribe that is a constant presence throughout the film. This is important, because it allows this tribe, which in a film like this would normally be nothing more than villains, to get humanized in a unique way. Unfortunately, once Glass is attacked by a bear, all of this starts to change as the pacing of the film grinds to a halt. The movie eventually just becomes a lot of Glass wandering in search of revenge on Fitzgerald, combined with generic pretty beats to show off the beautiful landscape this film is shot in. Ultimately the film’s craft overwhelms its story, and I am once again left watching an Iñárritu film that looks great, but feels soulless.
This really shouldn’t be possible, since so much of the film is spiritual in nature, the way it examines Glass’s existential and spiritual crisis over the values of revenge. But none of it ever quite works. Instead, like Iñárritu’s Babel, The Revenant comes off as long and emotionally overwrought. Worse, the film just feels so calculated that it’s hard to connect with what is happening. After a career of struggling to strike the delicate balance between controlling every aspect of a film and having the result feel micromanaged, Iñárritu finally achieved that with Birdman, whose overt long-take gimmick gave it an energy and freshness despite its elaborate choreography. But in The Revenant, the filmmaker’s annoying habits came back in force. Every single thing just felt so inorganic and controlled. If done well, like in the terrific fight sequence between Glass and Fitzgerald, that can be a terrific experience, but under other circumstances that precision can make it hard to invest in what is happening on screen. Part of what makes the beginning of the film so good is that it flows freely, the way it is shot and cut is just different from most movies. The big battle at the beginning is one of the smoothest things I have ever seen in a movie, and the staggering difficulty of achievement it represents actually amplifies the sense of greatness while you’re watching it. After that, though, the film’s flow is completely disrupted. Suddenly, everything begins to feel really limiting. The editing of the film stops feeling fresh and becomes like any other survival movie. The cinematography becomes too obsessed with creating the most perfectly framed shots of beautiful landscape instead of what is actually being said with each shot. Emmanuel Lubezki is probably the greatest cinematographer working right now, and he does a hell of a job once again, but he is wasted in the middle portions of this movie. His skills are not needed to show how pretty snow can be against trees in the early morning sun, or how lovely a raging river can look when surrounded by ice and snow. There’s always a sense in The Revenant that Iñárritu and Lubezki could be doing so much more, but simply chose not to.
Of course, this is when the popular narrative of how the film was tortuous to shoot comes into play. It’s been talked about pretty much everywhere. That story certainly makes this film a really impressive achievement, and is one reason why the craft and acting on display here deserve a lot of praise. But at the same time, the fact that your movie was really difficult to shoot doesn’t make it good (no matter how many times you say it). This narrative has started to grate on me quite a bit, especially knowing it could very well be what leads The Revenant to Oscar glory. That would be a shame, because it would mean the Academy overlooked the fact that much of this movie’s thematics just don’t work. Its ideas about revenge are muddled, and a lot of the filmmaking actually distracts from the overall work. That doesn’t make it a bad film, necessarily, but achieving this level of quality, even on a difficult project, doesn’t necessarily make for a great film, either.
Then there is the Leo of it all. DiCaprio is great in this movie, but there is no subtlety in this performance. He’s either like “rawr revenge” or sad the entire film. Even so, Leo actually does an impressive job of coming off as a real person, something he hasn’t shown in a movie for a long time. Still, it is hard to shake the idea as you watch that, man, Leo really wants that Oscar, as he crawls around through the snow and spews spittle into his impressive beard. DiCaprio gives a great performance in this movie, but like the movie itself, it’s a performance that looks better than it actually is. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy is honestly the real star performer in this film. Hardy is shackled with a nothing part that should have been nothing but a mustache-twirling villain, yet and injects enough humanity into it that you feel for Fitzgerald. You may not agree with virtually anything Fitzgerald does in the movie, but man, you understand why he is doing it. Hardy may be overshadowed by Leo’s showier performance, but he’s still very good.
Isn’t this based on…?
Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?
Yes and no. This movie can be called nothing other than a success. It has made almost $330 million worldwide at this point, and that number will keep going up. It is a leading Oscar contender with 12 nominations, including Best Picture. It has further cemented the legends of Iñárritu and Lubezki, who are both favorites to take home their second and third Oscars in a row, respectively. This is also the film that it appears will net Leo his first Oscar. Most importantly, though, this movie is one of the buzziest films of 2015. The Revenant is the type of film that, while overrated, is likely to be remembered years from now when talking about film in 2015, even if it isn’t able to win Best Picture. People were talking about this movie months before it even came out, and once it did come out, the slew of stories about how difficult it was to shoot only multiplied. These stories are likely to only grow in stature over the years, as more and more people reflect on how ridiculous this film was to shoot; it may go down in film legend alongside other famously difficult productions like Apocalypse Now, and, uh, every single Werner Herzog movie. So The Revenant is a success in basically every way a movie can be.
Yet the reason the answer is also no is that this film represented a regression for Iñárritu. Birdman was the first film he did that properly balanced his craft and his story, but The Revenant was a return to form, where the movie itself just felt more like the filmmaker showing off than an actual film. Of course, Iñárritu is amazing, so this is the most pedantic argument ever, but sometimes Iñárritu lets his genius get in his own way. So over the course of his career you get Biutiful, which is amazing despite his distracting direction, but it also means you end up with Babel, which is an even more overrated film than The Revenant. I had hoped that Iñárritu had finally learned how to get out of the path of his own movies, but it seems that Birdman was a momentary blip, more an exception than the new rule. That is disappointing, especially because it is very likely Iñárritu is going to do something only John Ford has done before by winning two Best Directing Oscars in a row. Very few people share this opinion with me, but whatever, this is my column, and hyper-masculine revenge tales that meander in pretension shouldn’t be receiving all the accolades this film is getting and will continue to get.
Would I recommend it to others?
Hmm, this is tough. If you are a film aficionado, than yes, because the craft of this film is amazing, and it’s is definitely a movie worthy of examination. Manufactured or not, there are some truly great parts where the film’s quality shines through. For anyone else, though, it is still worth watching, but the question becomes more compared to what? This is a long movie that grows kind of boring at points. There are plenty of other films from this year I would recommend watching before this, but it is something you should see at some point. It just doesn’t take priority.
How does this film measure up in a post Mad Max: Fury Road world?
Sigh. This is where this film really annoys me. The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road in a lot of ways occupy the same sphere, in that both have become prestige action movies. Of course, The Revenant has been carefully orchestrated for the Oscars, while Mad Max earned its position simply by trying to be the best, most entertaining film it could possibly be. The Revenant might be more high-minded, but it’s missing Fury Road‘s organic joy. I think both of these films (along with The Force Awakens) are very likely to the big films people think of in terms of movies in 2015. Mad Max deserves that honor, while The Revenant really doesn’t, as it definitely always going to be treated as being better than it actually is.
How would I rate it?
Now this is a fun rating to give, because this film did basically everything it was supposed to do: it has been a box office success, garnered much Oscar support, and almost assuredly will gain Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar. The only problem is that it isn’t as good as I had hoped, and may have proved that Birdman is simply a stylistic aberration for Iñárritu. Thus, using our handy dandy made-up anticipation meter for this film, The Revenant receives 8 bears pelts out of 10, because this film did exactly what it was supposed to, and doesn’t care if I think it is overrated.
For an actual rating: this film has some truly great things in it that only Mad Max can match, or come close to matching. The craft in this film is top notch. The costuming and make-up are superb, and good Lord, is it pretty. Unfortunately, the script hinders most of the non-Leo actors from achieving their full potential, the pacing is spotty at best, and Iñárritu gets a little too caught up in showing off instead of telling a good story. So I give The Revenant about 3.25 stars out of 4 stars. This film deserves a lot of praise, just not as much as it is getting, because even with its many flaws it is still quite good. The problem is that, for the most part, I respect this film I lot more than I like it, and its overall quality is a bit hollow once you start digging past its beautiful exterior.
That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. We are done with 2015! Check back in future editions as we get started with all the movie action in 2016. Until then, remember that when fighting a bear, maybe it is better just to let the bear walk away after it mauls you. No one is going to judge you for not killing the bear. Except for Tom Hardy, but he’s kind of a dick.