The frontier, the man versus the wilderness, the fight with the bear, the confrontation with the Other, the heart of darkness, the revenge: on paper The Revenant is the quintessential American film. And an ambitious one: shot all on impervious locations with natural light, long uncut plans and challenging ensemble sequences. Plus it stars the indefatigable Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s in a good streak of memorable performances since, well, forever.
For all those reasons I really wanted to fall in love with Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu‘s las effort, but I couldn’t. There had been many sparkles along the way but it didn’t last: by the end of our hero’s odyssey in the wild my excitement had already worn off. What went wrong?
It seems to me that those ideas so important in the American mythology are never fully explored. The Revenant fails to offer a new perspective or insight on them, it doesn’t make them matter and live again through memorable characters and a compelling plot.
For all the archetypes involved, the movie turned out to be too simple. Iñárritu’s marvelously crafted long shots and Lubezki’s astounding cinematography made it look important and so fascinating to watch, for a while at least. But it is not as profound as it wants to be. And I think this has to do with the two dimensional characters that populate it. Starting with the protagonist of the story himself.
I found frontiersman Hugh Glass surprisingly uninteresting. He’s simply not a well written character, and all DiCaprio’s talent and dedication couldn’t make up for that. The recurrent flashbacks fail to give an insight into his life and personality. He is a guy who lost his Pawnee wife. Then he becomes a guy who also lost his half Pawnee son. His dreamy memories tried to put some wider perspective, lyrical aspect in brutality of murder and survival, but were simplistic and repetitive. A tree shakes in the wind but doesn’t fall because its roots are strong: that supposedly profound bit of Native American wisdom was repeated over and over. It was already banal the first time, but the third one it was clear that Glass and his lost wife and son were never real characters with a story and something to say but pure plot devices repeating their one and only line.
The same goes for the other trappers risking their life in the inhospitable plains of Montana, the lonely Pawnee who medicated Glass’ wounds and who said he lost all his family, the Arikara woman kidnapped by the French soldiers, the Arikara chief looking and killing for his lost daughter. There was a great potential, so many different life experiences and motivations crossing each others’ path in those wild lands, and figuratively in that specific period in American history. They could have added resonance to Glass’ tale and led to stronger emotional involvement from the audience. In 156 minutes there was plenty of time to develop these characters. Instead, without enough interest in them, a killed son, a kidnapped daughter, a lone Indian, some trappers in the woods feel just like McGuffins in a never ending mountain chase. And the film results repetitive and meaningless. A long succession of interchangeable vignettes of our trapper’s misery.
Only the amazing cinematography manages to widen our perspective from the minutiae of our hero’s suffering.
Indeed those fluid camera movements, wide angles, powerful wilderness imagery do a great job in keeping us on board with Glass’ journey. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki gives us a total immersion experience in nature in all its beauty and all its fierceness. Foggy woods, endless planes, a sea of ice, all untouched by civilization. Human beings are just guests in there, unwelcome ones. For a while we are the witnesses of a travel not only in space but also back in time: men are once again animals in the wilderness, counting only on their adaption skills and their desperate will to survive. The scene in which the trapper and the lone Pawnee, like two wounded beasts, eat the raw meat of a dead bison killed by wolves under the huge starry night sky is maybe the most evocative in this sense (it also features what may be the only act of kindness in the whole movie).
Also memorable is the initial battle sequence, all built around one long dynamic shot tracing bullets and arrows and destinies. A real cinematic tour-de-force that kept me breathless from beginning to end. But as in Saving Private Ryan, that sensational battle scene at the beginning leads way to a more conventional film.
Without three dimensional human character to inhabit those gorgeous fluid shots and panoramas, their appeal becomes, after a while, superficial. The result is a film beautiful and solemn but without much to say.
Even the finale fails to give a deeper meaning to our hero’s misadventures (asking to another piece of Native wisdom to save the day).
In the long awaited bloody battle between the two trappers, just before inflicting the decisive hit to his nemesis Fitzgerald, Glass refrains himself and repeats the words previously pronounced by his Pawnee travel companion: “Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine”. Well, this statement sounds to me hypocritical after he already mutilated the guy, stabbed him in the guts, then pushed him in a icy river towards a bunch of angry Arikara armed to their teeth. I know, Glass survived all this and more, so I guess for his standards Fitzgerald, regardless of the wounds, the cold, the hostile Natives, still had all his life ahead of him. For us common mortals instead, it sounds like a bad joke. Or opportunism: “Revenge is in the hands of those guys who conveniently happen to be over there… so I wash my hands of it!”
The last minute change of hearts would make more sense if Glass let his enemy run away in the forest and only after that, around the corner, unbeknownst to him, the bad guy found the Indians and his fate. That would really look like Fitzgerald meeting his karmic retribution, God’s hand. Most importantly, we would see our hero sincerely freeing himself from his blood thirst, becoming human again after having lived like an animal in the wild: a much needed character evolution.
In the end, despite the important archetypes, bold filmmaking, technical accomplishments and beautiful shots, The Revenant is just a survival flic, a long and pretentious one, lifted by dazzling cinematography, and not sure if it wants to be a revenge or a redemption story.