Blood Simplistic
By Adam Nayman

The Revenant
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, U.S., Twentieth Century Fox

It begins with an actual sea of trees, a ground-level tracking shot describing a forest floor covered in cascades of water flowing freely over roots and rocks so that the terrain appears partially submerged. It’s an amazing sight, and it’s held for a strategically elongated series of beats, just long enough to take the full lay of the landscape. If beauty in cinema is as much a matter of how things are seen as the subject of that gaze, then this shot is doubly gorgeous. Through a combination of planning, patience, and camera placement, the director and his cinematographer assert their symbiotic co-authorship even as they bow to Nature. By humbly capturing an image, they have also created one.

The Revenant peaks early in this interlude before the intrusion of human forms, who bring with them chaos, corruption, and the sort of pummeling melodrama and significance-mongering that is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stock-in-trade. Emboldened by the critical and popular success of Birdman—that ostensibly invigorating, hugely irritating statement of artistic and aesthetic principles—the director has gone chasing after Herzog, Coppola, Friedkin, and all the other mad, corporate-backed visionaries who’ve dragged movie stars into the jungle, or in this case, the Rockies. In interviews, Iñárritu and his actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy have dutifully discoursed on how insanely, dangerously difficult the naturally lit, expensively intercontinental shoot proved to be, and how the crew’s struggles with their environment and each other mirrored the action onscreen. They suggest, helpfully, that this long, punishing movie about an onerous quest—a stranded trapper tracking down the man who left him for dead—could, just maybe, be some kind of allegory for itself, and thus a pretty important venture, all things considered, for all involved, not to mention for journalists, audiences, and Oscar voters as well.

The main difference between The Revenant and, say, Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo—two flawed epics that were, indeed, allegories of themselves and pretty important ventures, all things considered—is that there’s no real madness in it. That’s surely to Iñárritu’s credit in a practical sense: nobody’s going to seriously criticize a director for not ruining careers or nearly getting people killed. But the overall impression is of a film that plays by the rules even as its director made an on-set fetish of flouting them. Shot for authenticity’s sake in chronological order at outposts in Western Canada and Argentina—meeting in the middle to approximate America circa 1823—and, supposedly as sans CGI as possible (“if we ended up in green screen with coffee and everybody having a good time . . . most likely the film would be a piece of shit,” crowed Herr Director), The Revenant is indeed an allegory for itself, but maybe not in the way it was intended. If Iñárritu means this story of a noble, mortally wounded hero surviving and conquering on his own uncompromised terms as a self-portrait, then it’s one steeped in arrogance—so much that the widescreen can barely contain it.

In Birdman, Iñárritu (and his coscreenwriters) inveighed against, among other things, the lack of originality that turned audiences into passive consumers; their hero was a hack actor clinging to a scintilla of principle and, in the process, transforming himself into a transcendent performer. What does it say, then, that so much of the putatively audacious and outrageous spectacle of The Revenant feels borrowed from other movies? An extended set piece showing a raid by Ree Indians on a troupe of American fur traders is straight out of the Saving Private Ryan playbook, with the mobile camera catching sudden-death atrocities at the corner of the frame. Technically, the aesthetic is different— extended 360-degree perspectives instead of frenetic editing. The basic atmosphere of hysteria and dread is identical, however, which probably says less about universals of combat and mortality than the influence of one serious Hollywood entertainer on another, with the latter’s work looking short-stacked in comparison.

And so it goes, with almost every aspect of the film. The sinuous long takes are an Emmanuel Lubezki specialty, and can’t help but evoke the cinematographer’s work on The New World, an appropriate reference point, perhaps, but also one whose deep, ineffable strangeness on a shot-to-shot level exposes the conventionality of Iñárritu’s aesthetics. Contrast Malick’s fleeting magical realist flourishes at the end of The New World—the jarring, quick-cut montage to symbolize Pocahontas’s death and her spirit’s progress from civilization back to the elements—with Iñárritu’s imitative imagery of a bird escaping a mortally wounded woman’s chest. The difference is one of speed and subtlety, but also trust, between the director and audience and also for himself and his powers of suggestion. In The New World everything in creation is made to appear hallucinatory; in The Revenant we get bracketed-off hallucinations to delineate the feelings of its main character, and if the shots of mysterious, skeletal structures and levitating earth mothers (Malick, by way of Tarkovsky) are diverting within the surrounding context of blood-and-guts realism, they’re also more prosaic than their creator would probably admit.

Speaking of that blood-and-guts realism: it’s been oversold. Not that I was hoping The Revenant would make me cower under my theater seat, but the hype about its unprecedented visceral intensity is just so much PR (although of course, the strength of individual stomachs may vary). Certainly, the much-anticipated scene in which DiCaprio’s explorer Hugh Glass is mauled by a bear has been calibrated for maximum-bone breaking audio-visual impact, and yet there’s something distracting about the evident seamlessness of this—of course—single-take special-effects showcase, which occurs so early in the story that it’s essentially a prologue. We of course know that Glass is going to survive, and so it becomes a question of measuring his resilience as the object of unfathomable brutalization against our own—to see if we can take it as viewers. This isn’t excitement, exactly: it’s a rarefied species of exploitation filmmaking, and ultimately far less affecting or scary than a similar scene in last year’s cheapo Canadian thriller Backcountry, which didn’t draw things out and used practical effects and ace sound design to nightmarish effect.

Glass’s subsequent incapacitation catalyzes the entire plot of The Revenant, which shapes itself as a chase narrative where the pursuer seems fated to never quite catch up. After being roughly patched up by his mates and seemingly only for the sake of form, Glass becomes an albatross around the group’s neck; they’re never going to make it back to camp dragging him up mountain passes on a makeshift litter, and as they have reason to suspect that the natives who decimated their party are tracking them, they decide to move on without him—save for three men who agree to preside over their comrade’s dying hours in exchange for a reward from the fur company. One of these is Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Glass’s son by a Pawnee woman and a character who was not in Michael Punke’s source novel; another is Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a scraggly, half-scalped debtor who can barely conceal his rooting interest in Glass’s failing prospects.

The predictable—if still bracingly awful—result of the brief, early interaction between Hawk and Fitzgerald is Iñárritu’s main addition to the novel, and it says a lot about his sensibility that he felt he needed to ramp up what was on the page a fairly straightforward revenge narrative. The charitable reading is that by giving Glass an especially intimate reason to hate Fitzgerald—who in the book is simply the prime mover behind his abandonment to die in the woods—and run him down despite barely being able to breathe (much less walk), Iñárritu has opened up the work to emotion; my own feeling is that he’s the most mawkish sort of macho mythologizer, piling one more murder on top of a scenario that’s already plenty death-tinged so as to completely eliminate the possibility of ambivalence for his hero or for his audience. It’s hard to watch a father helplessly bear witness to something terrible happening to his flesh-and-blood, and at the same time easy to dismiss the artistic motivations underlying the horror—and to resent the attempt to turn something that would ideally emphasize the terrible indifference of the natural world into a simplistic moral tale.

Simply put, it’s boring to watch something so pompously pretentious that stays so resolutely on beat. When Glass encounters a Native American man who gives him shelter and assistance—including a mystic healing ritual that permits one of those surreal dream sequences—we count down the moments until this helpful figure is uncaringly killed off; to mark the time, Iñárritu contrives a scene where Glass and his new pal catch falling snowflakes on their tongues, which might as well be subtitled for our consideration as “Peaceful Idyll.” Glass can’t merely cut a hobbling, existential figure in the snow—he has to be a grieving father, a friend to the indigenes, a protector of women (of course we get a naturalistic rape scene), and, above all, a righteously justified avenger. The last thing a movie aspiring to this level of violence and anguish should be is politically correct, but Iñárritu always has to control the responses he generates. That’s also why he feels the need to broadly thematize Vengeance instead of more simply—and, likely, satisfyingly—dramatizing it, a possibility that’s well within his ample skill set but not inflated enough to justify the epic mode he’s taken on.

Within this overbearing conceptual framework, the actors are tasked with looking and sounding beaten down, which they accomplish (and possibly with some added documentary dimension). Hardy tries on another harsh American accent after Lawless and ends up with something close to Jeff Bridges’s True Grit growl, which he deploys with the same gusto as his other funny voices. It would be too bad if this protean performer allowed himself to become a pumped-up thespian stuntman à la Michael Shannon, with whom he shares a shamelessness that’s often indistinguishable from self-consciousness. As for DiCaprio, he’s similarly game and more judicious in his exertions, but he’s too contemporary—both as a lithe body type and as a celebrity personage—to feel totally plausible.

Watching this irresistibly pretty movie star pantomime panic, I was reminded of Robert Redford as the titular hero of the 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson, another prestigious nineteenth-century survivalist drama of literary pedigree, and one that also had a difficult, although ultimately neatly controlled production. But it’s telling how much more snugly Sydney Pollack’s film reconciles its position as a kind of hairy-chested vanity project with the basic dictates of entertainment. As easy as it is to smirk at Jeremiah Johnson for its cobbled-together first-take style and sub-Altman “revisioning” of frontier legend, it retains the easy appeal of a story well told, and never conflates the resourcefulness of its protagonist with that of its director.

Meanwhile, Jeremiah Johnson’s famous, zoomed-in final shot, which freezes Redford in a gesture of peace toward his Blackfoot rival, has become enshrined as a 1970s cliché, one taken up by any number of New Hollywood–inflected movies, from to Michael Clayton to Zero Dark Thirty, albeit torqued in the direction of fashionable ambiguity. Ditto for The Revenant, which, after two-and-a-half hours of camera contortions, eventually comes to rest on a human face wearing an ambivalent expression—presumably a mirror of the viewer weighing the heaviness of all that has come before (he also looks directly at the camera, biting one of Steve McQueen’s better gimmicks in 12 Years a Slave).

Here, Iñárritu and Lubezki are trying their best to create an image but the truth it contains is unflattering in a way that’s unintended. Sometimes, a shot of a man whose experiences have left him speechless is a way of plugging into profundity. And sometimes it’s just indicative of the fact that he—and the filmmaker who has put him through his devastating paces—just doesn’t have anything to say.