‘The Revenant’ Isn’t an Adventure – It’s an Endurance Test

There’s nothing more exhausting than a filmmaker who thinks they have to dress up a genre picture with a lot of arty nonsense, and that’s the best way to sum up The Revenant, the new film from freshly minted Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman). It runs a lumpy 156 minutes, and there’s a decent, 105-minute wilderness survival/neo-Western revenge tale in there, if you want to dig it out. But you’ll have to burrow past all the macho posturing, blood-coughing misery, and faux-Malick twinkliness to find it.

It comes into theaters atop a wave of breathless reporting of its difficult shoot, a hell of delays and dysfunction, the kind of thing that used to be considered bad press (back in the Heaven’s Gate days) yet somehow seems like branding now. Making The Revenant was an ordeal, you see, in which people froze and suffered and came to blows, and they’d like to pass the ordeal on to you, the viewer.

Leonardo Di Caprio in "The Revenant"

To be certain, its approach – the old boys’ adventure tale, told with an adult edge and style – could work, and early on, it does. The opening attack on a group of hunter/trappers by a band of Native Americans plays like a series of blunt body blows, one gruesome kill stacked atop the next, the sudden, scary brutality of their arrow hits resulting in an onscreen bloodbath. Their numbers thin considerably, and things get bleaker when their scout, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is badly mauled and nearly killed by a bear. And, somehow, things get worse from there.

Much has been made of the physical trials DiCaprio put himself through at the service of this, his latest bid for that elusive Academy Award, and I’ll fess up: my outlook on The Revenant start to curdle once he lands, half-dying, on his makeshift stretcher, since there may be no image that summarizes the pandering of “award season” more succinctly than lock-jawed Leo, face torn to shreds, grunting and slobbering and snotting all over himself. Yet that’s not what sinks the movie; it’s Iñárritu’s insistence on making that image the overriding aesthetic. It’s a grim bit of business, this movie, a misery wallow whose undeniably sharp execution only underlines the filmmaker’s interest in creating not an adventure, or even a cogent narrative, but an endurance test.

The picture is beautifully lensed by the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu’s cinematographer on Birdman, and they again tinker with long, unbroken takes (though not, y’know, as long), staging scenes and relationships within a wider, moving frame, rather than constructing them in the editing room. But Lubezki’s work is less reminiscent of Birdman than his Terrence Malick collaborations The New World and The Tree of Life, full of gorgeous waking dream imagery and haunting shots of raging fires in a nighttime snowstorm or a bell ringing atop a decimated church.

Tom Hardy and Leonardo Di Caprio in "The Revenant"

Yet those frames are curiously deadening – exquisite enough to put in a frame and hang on a wall, but at odds with the forward momentum a story like this requires. The Revenant is a film that works best in motion, as our protagonist struggles down a river, dodging gunshots and precarious waterfalls, or rides a horse right off a cliff. But when Iñárritu stops to gaze at his navel, the movie crashes to a halt at his feet. These and other holy-cow moments are enough to hang your hat on, cinematically speaking, but when self-consciously intellectual filmmakers lower themselves to making a genre movie, they think they have to gussy it up. It feels like Iñárritu is using his artiness as justification for his thrills, rather than just earning them honestly.

Does The Revenant pull the viewer in? Yes. Is it well made? Undeniably. Is Tom Hardy once again scarily convincing and pretty much capable of anything? Of course. But this is a movie that sweats and bellows and stomps so loud, for so long, that it’s ultimately an exhausting exercise in what happens when an Oscar winner decides he’s going to do some demystifying. Imagine what a John Sturges or a Howard Hawks could’ve done with this material. Better yet, don’t.

The Revenant is out Christmas Day in limited release.