The final awards season push is upon us and if you're not already exhausted by prestige films already then you haven't seen The Revenant. After winning last year's Best Picture award for Birdman, director Alejandro G. Inarritu returns with a sweeping tale of revenge anchored by a blistering performance by Leonardo DiCaprio that, often enough, elevates the film above its extensive faults.
Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is a fur trader in the 1820s. After being mauled by a bear Glass is left in the care of two men (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter). But when one of the men kills Glass' son and leaves Glass for dead, the broken man will have to muster up all the strength he has to hunt the men down.
The Revenant seeks to show the misery that can be birthed from a tempestuous and unforgiving Mother Nature, and that's all best exemplified in the harsh violence set amidst the beautiful landscapes cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures. At times the film's long panoramic shots take center stage for an effect that feels very reminiscent of Terence Malick (and his name alone tells you whether you'll enjoy this or not). Glass' journey is emotionally trying even if, at times, it feels completely impossible and somewhat bloated at 156-minutes. The bear mauling sequence, with the camera at ground level, is excruciatingly horrifying that's only minorly surpassed by a knife fight at the finale that gives off a tactile feel with every slice of the knife on skin.
DiCaprio and Hardy anchor the film's performances. Much of DiCaprio's motivation stems from his son who, unfortunately, is crafted strictly to die. You watch every tortured expression on DiCaprio's face, and while much of his dialogue isn't in English, he conveys so much emotion. Hardy acts as the villainous foil, a man with nothing to lose and a penchant for killing. There is a taste of ambiguity early in his character – his desire to leave Glass behind seems logical – but the film doesn't give Hardy enough chance to propel that ambiguity further. Other actors like Domnhall Gleeson and Poulter serve their purpose but lack much otherwise.
The Revenant's greatest problem is its numerous attempts to gain our sympathy for the characters. It's not enough for Glass to seek revenge because he's been left for dead, we're also giving a son with zero characterization short of being a victim. After that Glass finds himself "haunted" by the ethereal spirit of his wife, another character meant to humanize but lacks any personality of her own. There's also a subplot involving the Rhee tribe and their missing daughter. What's meant to act as a parallel to Glass' story – showing that both "tribes" aren't so different – comes off as utterly confusing when resolution is only hinted at.
Capture beautifully, The Revenant works in short bursts overall. Glass' story of revenge is intriguing, but Inarritu gets too wrapped up in the visuals and crafting unnecessary parallels that storytelling seems secondary. DiCaprio and Hardy are worth the watch.