‘The Revenant’ Review | Apocalypse Snow
There’s cold in them thar hills, and it’s not just because they’re covered in punishing ice. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s bitter new western The Revenant is a brutal journey into the heart of darkness… a heart that has been stabbed, removed, and left to crust over in the snow.
It certainly is an impressive about-face from Iñárritu, whose films to date have been overwrought melodramas of the highest and lowest order. Whereas motion pictures like Biutiful and 21 Grams featured characters who wallowed in their personal tragedy, more or less forever, The Revenant sets its heroes and villains on an absorbing journey to do something about their pain. What they are going to do, of course, is maim and murder and destroy. Iñárritu still wants you to feel pretty bad about all of this but at least he also wants you to feel excited at the same time, and excitement you will actually feel… in fits and starts, anyway.
In between the bullet points of the plot – and there aren’t even that many of them – The Revenant indulges cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in his ongoing quest to make your eyeballs implode. Evocative and powerful images of winter tundras fill the frame, and keep filling the frame, and won’t seem to stop until long after we’ve started to wonder if anything is actually going to happen anymore. Hours after The Revenant finally concludes you will discover that a large percentage of this film has disappeared into a fog of half-remembered nature photography.
Not that there’s anything wrong with beautiful images, it’s just that The Revenant gets a little too caught up in them, and it distracts from an otherwise ripping revenge saga. It’s well worth taking the scenic route to get there, but one can’t help but wonder how far The Revenant could have gone if it hadn’t stopped at every single point of ecological interest along the way to take several minutes worth of pictures.
In any case, Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a frontier guide in the 1820s. He’s struggling to keep a team of fur trappers alive after an ambush by local natives wipes out most of their party. It’s a task that Glass could have accomplished fairly easily were it not for a surprise bear attack that leaves him battered, broken, but not quite dead. The elements start taking their toll on the survivors, who eventually decide to leave Glass in the care of his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the naive Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and the half-scalped John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who are ordered to wait for Glass to die and then respectfully bury him before moving on.
This they do not do, but only because John Fitzgerald is a sociopathic horror of a man. Hardy is the real force of nature in The Revenant, his eyes burning through every scene, his harsh inflections transforming pragmatic arguments into alarming screeds. He murders Hawk, cons Bridger and leaves Glass – who saw the whole shocking incident, powerless and voiceless to stop it – for dead. All the while Fitzgerald is justifying his cruelty, and masking his cowardice in logic. He doesn’t worry about God’s wrath. In the film’s greatest moment he explains exactly who God is, and what happened to Him, and he dares you to disagree even as you balk at him. Holy shit, Tom Hardy is amazing in this movie.
Glass crawls out of his grave, through the barren landscape, making his way slowly but unerringly towards Fitzgerald. His vengeance will be done, if the elements don’t get him first, and if the marauders don’t either. That drive to push forward is what keeps The Revenant primed for one hell of a climax, one which Iñárritu and Lubezki film with all of their usual verve. It is a film of gradual momentum, spiking in bravura set pieces and then falling away into montage and then repeating and repeating. Yes, somehow it always moves forward, just not as quickly as we would necessarily like.
The Revenant is a film for the broken hearted. It is a violent and masterfully acted tale, beautifully filmed and handsomely produced. It has pacing issues, and that’s a hindrance, but if you think about it the whole film is about hindrance. Appreciating the beauty of nature while they bleed out in the snow is the best that many of these characters can hope for. In the audience we can hope for a little bit more than that, and we probably deserve it, but putting ourselves in these poor bastards’ freezing pelts for a while and sharing in their pain and suffering is a bittersweet and potent experience, well worth having.
Top Photo: 20th Century Fox
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.