There has been much speculation about what Academy Award Winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu (director of Babel, and Birdman) would do when given a large budget to match the critical acclaim he’s received. Pair this hot director with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, and the majority of cinephiles are already sold on the concept. The only problem is that this doesn’t necessarily make The Revenant a good film.
The story is one that quickly hooks viewers and gets the drama set in motion. A group of fur trappers are attacked by Native Americans, whom make the party flee. Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) knows the land, and scouting ahead he gets mauled by a bear. Fitzgerald (Hardy) isn’t as sympathetic and kills Glass’ son and leaves Glass to die. Glass manages to recover with one goal in mind: revenge.
Every moment of joy in this film comes from a mix of stunning cinematography, where we see vast untouched landscapes that shows that the beauty of the frontier isn’t exclusive to duels outside of a saloon. The film could easily be animals roaming around the countryside and it would still be enjoyable to watch, and Iñárritu establishes that even though this isn’t a film of one long take, there’s plenty of takes worth paying attention to. DiCaprio keeps his reputation of good performances, but any talk of him winning an Oscar would most likely turn into another entry in his run of nominations. Hardy makes an enduring villain, his accent occasionally sounding too familiar to The Dark Knight Rises, the whole time hinting that this was the real origin story for Bane.
The issue with the film is hinted in the beginning and is continually interspersed as the film progresses, and that is that while it creates wonderful visual effects, it falls victim to a lot of tropes. The quest to get back home and get revenge for the murder of his son would be enough, but instead there’s plenty of heavy handed symbolism in the film. The tension is interspersed with imagery of Glass’ dead wife, and themes that come full circle often do so by running you over with their obviousness. For some moviegoers this may be inspiring or clever, but to me symbolism should be subtle, and should be a subtle essence in the snow of The Revenant, not the obvious bear mauling the audience. Furthermore, and despite how true this is to the story or a choice of the filmmaker, Glass’ survival depends mostly on luck. The various Native Americans he comes across either want to kill him or help him, so it’s anyone’s guess when they appear unless they’re already established. Also, falling off a cliff and having a tree break every branch seemed more like a cartoon on occasions than some of the greatest people in modern film working together.
Perhaps the film failed to make its mark due to the high budget, meaning that it was more of a creative committee than it may have been for the excellent Birdman. Make no mistake, it has the names and cinematography that means that it’ll probably do well come award season. In fact, it’s been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Original Score at the Golden Globes, and it’s naive to think that the Oscars wouldn’t follow suit. It may instead show a larger problem with the awards in Hollywood, and if DiCaprio does win the Oscar for Best Actor, it will be an acknowledgement of his whole career rather than for his performance in this film.
All in all, The Revenant is not a bad film. In fact, it’s far from it. The saddest thing about it is just how easily it could have been a great film. It smells of a film that is resting on its laurels, ready to clean up in awards season, but ultimately is an average entry for the collected group of talented people who are involved in the final product. No doubt it’ll be a success critically, and more than likely regain its budget due to the personnel involved. But serious fans and moviegoers may find themselves wanting to have their own quest of revenge for paying full price for a ticket.