Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson Running Time: 156 minutes
Alejandro González Iñárritu isn’t the first filmmaker to pit a hardworking actor against the forces of nature, the better to show the brutality and cold and unfeeling reality of yadda yadda yadda. But while others might regard the fatalistic and violent reality Iñárritu depicts in The Revenant with some sadness, or pity, or even bemused resignation, about the only emotion he seems interested in showing, if any, is a cold, detached disdain. In that detachment, The Revenant is a visually stimulating, visceral achievement, but its impossible to connect with emotionally, which is maybe not the best outcome for a story about a man losing everything and being left for dead.
Of course, more people are going to be more interested in the performance of perennial Oscar-chaser Leonardo DiCaprio than in Iñárritu miserably shooting wide shots of snow, and the news for those people is: he’s fine? Pretty good but not mind-blowing? The problem is that there isn’t much to the character; Hugh Glass before being attacked by a bear is a terse, competent hunter with a son and Hugh Glass after being attacked by a bear is a struggling half corpse without one. Though DiCaprio’s dedication to depicting the ordeal is admirable, it always feels as though Glass’ pain is seen, rather than felt. Iñárritu is too distant to show an empathetic bond between Glass and his boy, who is more like a big bag of gold coins that Glass covets that has nevertheless managed to mildly irritate him in some way. There are moments when DiCaprio crawls so slowly and theatrically, he could have just as easily been the victim of a Tombstone Piledriver than a bear attack. It’s not that he’s doing wrong exactly, it’s just that there isn’t much to the character beyond the horrible things that happen to him, or the horrible things DiCaprio put himself through to play him. He’d dedicated yes, but you can’t help but wonder, would the film have been any different with a different but equally dedicated actor in the role? If Christian Bale was biting the head off a fish, would The Revenant be much worse off?
Fellow award nominee Tom Hardy may actually give the better performance, even if that’s due to having an actual character to play. As John Fitgerald, the man who leaves Glass for dead (what exactly did Domhnall Gleeson think was going to happen?), Hardy is shifty, self-serving, reactionary and brutal. While the film focuses on roughly shoving Leo into nature as hard as it can, Hardy plays his part like a cornered, sick dog, establishing the animalistic masculinity The Revenant is so clinically pre-occupied with, while still coming across like an actual person.
Is The Revenant worth seeing? On the whole yes, the opening attack by Natives on Gleeson, Leo and company is about as good an example of what Iñárritu does best as you’re going to get. Moments like that, disorienting and frantic, are when the film is at its best. Think of it as a highbrow version of the films you always see described as “white-knuckle rides!” on the back of a DVD cover. But know that everybody involved has probably done better, and know that this is not the easy time at the cinema you might expect from the headline of “Leonardo DiCaprio Oscar movie”. This is not The Wolf of Wall Street, and despite all the press, the sizeable audience at my screening did not seem prepared for the unrelenting misery, for the scarcity of dialogue or for the specific, uncompromising flavour of violence. They were restless and on edge throughout. Maybe that’s an endorsement?