Leonardo DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for his performance as Hugh Glass in The Revenant (trailer), and the movie is nominated for a dozen Oscars. If these awards were for fortitude alone, the accolades would be well-deserved, as cast and crew have spoken at length about the physical hardships they faced in filming this movie. “The elements sort of took over,” DiCaprio told Wired interviewer Robert Capps. One must wonder, why did they undertake such a difficult and potentially perilous project?
Perhaps they did it because younger audiences today haven’t grown up knowing about the privations and violence inherent in the settlement of the West—there was life before Disneyland—and need to have the blood and guts smacked in their face. In which case, the movie is a success. It’s based in part on Michael Punke’s novel The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, set in 1820s Montana and South Dakota along the Upper Missouri River.
If they want to give cinematography awards to Emmanuel Lubezki for this film, I will be standing in the front row cheering. It is a beautiful film—with breathtaking views of the western United States (and Canada, Mexico, and Argentina)—shot with a deep depth of field worthy of a Sierra Club coffee table book. Snow-melt rivers, star-spangled nights, forests that pull you into the sky.
It’s just that we’re shown unspeakable violence, then astounding beauty, then unspeakable violence, then astounding beauty, then unsp. . . .you get the rhythm. In fact the violence was always so gruesome that it became (I hate to say this, since human and animal lives were purportedly involved) borrring. The beauty that followed it began to feel like heavy-handed ironic commentary, losing any capacity to soothe. The sound design and music are emotionally apt and compelling, I thought (score by Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who wrote the script with Mark L. Smith, did not conceive of Hugh Glass as anything more than a character bent on revenge. Glass pursues this hollow quest for pretty much two hours and thirty-six minutes. What I like to see in a character is some growth, some change, some “ok, this is awful, but I can rise above it” (or not). But while DiCaprio may well be capable of a meatier performance, the film doesn’t ask it of him. We learn nothing by watching it except that having an angry mama-bear drooling over you is really disgusting, but wait a sec, now she’s going to fling you around like a rag doll again. And drool some more.
For good reason, we don’t like the Frenchies, or the single-minded Indians, or the dim Americans. Everywhere they appear, Lubezki’s beautiful landscape is soon tainted by blood, usually human. Please. A little nuance. But, as Manohla Dargis says in a New York Times review, Iñárritu “isn’t given to subtlety.” The word revenant means “ghost,” and it was clear why the ghosts of Glass’s murdered wife and son keep reappearing and where they will lead him. And I won’t even mention the many, many instances in which the viewer Sees What’s Coming a Mile Away.
All this made me long to reread The Big Sky, the 1947 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner A.B. Guthrie, Jr. The novel was chosen as “The Best Novel of the American West” by members of the Western Literature Association. As in The Revenant, The Big Sky’s characters travel the Missouri River, live as trappers and guides, and face the vicissitudes of weather and the native population. Yet their struggles will stay with you always, while, I fear, The Revenant is at least dramatically forgettable.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 81%; audiences 87%.