"The Revenant" Is A Shallow, Feature-Length Proof Of Concept

Going to the trouble of shooting 19th century survival pic “The Revenant” exclusively with natural light in the harshest of winter conditions suggests a heroic commitment to realism on the part of writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Or at least it would have, if not for the utterly unbelievable (and undercooked) story that accompanies it, one that evaporates any delusions of artistic martyrdom on the part of its creator.

Once the shine is off, all that’s left is a so-so revenge thriller with an absurd overemphasis on craft.

Leonardo DiCaprio headlines as Hugh Glass, a member of a hunting party scouring the American wilderness for pelts. It’s 1823 and Glass’ crew is not only at odds with nature, but also a Native American tribe called the Arikara. The film opens with the Arikara ambushing Glass and company in what’s easily its best sequence. Iñárritu resuscitates the long take techniques he perfected in 2014 Best Picture winner “Birdman,” his camera breathlessly transferring its attention from downed hunter to Native galloping on horseback to falling tree, all in the same shot.

It’s an astonishing technical demo, its mechanics a boon at first, and then a bane. As the film gradually reveals itself an empty, pretty thing, it becomes clear that it’s little more than a string of breathtaking vistas best suited for months of playback in the home theater section of your local Best Buy.

Hugh and his son, Hawk (young Native American actor Forrest Goodluck), go on to survive the initial attack, as do party leader Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), overall misanthrope John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and greenhorn Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). But perpetually unlucky Hugh soon finds himself the defenseless target of fiercely protective mother grizzly. (The bear and her two cubs are more relatable and well rounded than that of any of the film’s human characters.)

It’s when Fitzgerald – tasked with watching over his presumably mortally wounded compatriot – kills Hawk and leaves Hugh to die that the movie’s revenge angle is set into motion. Naturalism be damned, Hugh makes a miraculous recovery, leaping from death’s door to action hero in a matter of days (if not hours) and DiCaprio goes on an acting binge, grunting and panting his way to bloody vengeance.

Leo is a marvelous actor, but he’s so stone-faced here as to make his inanimate surroundings seem positively vivacious. It’s a literally and figuratively anemic performance – his worst this side of “Blood Diamond” – requiring very little of him beyond existing in harsh conditions. But he’s only as bad as the story (or lack thereof) makes him.

Hardy seems to be the only one enjoying himself, but even his is a relatively weak turn. It’s half Ted Levine impression, half bleating billy goat, with a side of teenage angst. Fitzgerald’s motivations are thin and his characterization thinner still, undoubtedly a victim of Iñárritu’s arbitrary scripting.

In truth, the screenplay seems to have been crafted (or at least heavily altered) on the fly, left at the mercy of weather and location. (It all comes back to weather and location since the film leaves us with so little else to ponder.)

“Birdman” was a shockingly irreverent affair coming from Iñárritu, which magnified its charms. “The Revenant” sees him backslide to the bleakness of “Amores Perros” and “Babel” but without the detailed storytelling. Filmmakers regress – even the great ones – but rarely so hard and so fast. The most dynamic of action scenes can’t hold up without a dramatic spine, and there’s nothing here to support but the most basic of retribution yarns.

In the end, Iñárritu has made a historical reenactment with a budget: movie stars in the place of history buffs, with top of the line digital cameras. In the grand scheme of his filmography, “The Revenant” lands with a thud, recalling the kind of late 90s lowbrow art film that he once fought back against with thought and clarity.

If nothing else, the project might go down as the first feature-length proof of concept. Now, where’s the movie?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 25, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenwriter: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mark L. Smith
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck
MPAA Rating: R (for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity)