For all the stark realism and ballyhooed “natural light” cinematography of The Revenant, the movie tips its true hand as an aggressively directorial film when the hero, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is so close to the camera that his anguished, halting breath fogs the lens. You see, this is a deathlessly significant work about man’s inhumanity to man against a backdrop of unforgiving nature, but there is a man behind it all — a man of vision and integrity, you serfs — and you’d better appreciate his hard, crucifying labor, and Leo’s, too. See, there he is, suffering before you, steaming up the damn camera lens. Well, which is it? Is this a spiritual document of peerless verisimilitude, or is it filmmaker preening, reminding you that, above all else, this is a movie?
Based on his debut Amores Perros, I’ve been loyal to director Alejandro González Iñárritu for years, but after one bummer after another, as well as last year’s well-acted but show-offy Oscar winner Birdman, it’s probably time to admit that Iñárritu has a loud voice but not much to say with it. At its core, The Revenant is a simple story about Glass, a fur-trappers’ scout left for dead after a bear tears him up. He survives, and spends the rest of the long and winding movie trying to catch up with his chief betrayer, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and presumably put serious hurt on him. By the end, Glass rejects the idea of revenge, though he’s already brutalized Fitzgerald so much — in an ugly, endless brawl — that the movie gets to have its gory cake and eat it too.
Sitting through The Revenant, I kept recognizing other movies in it. The natural-lighting gimmick was done better by Kubrick in Barry Lyndon; the basic story was told before in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, which took up nearly an hour less of our time; the sometimes discordant score (by Ryuichi Sakamoto among others) recalls Neil Young’s fuzzbox music for Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man (and this film’s dependence on an Indian helping an ailing white man was already parodied nicely by Jarmusch); and the symbolic heaviness of man against nature got some play in Joe Carnahan’s underrated existential drama The Grey. No grey here; this is strictly black and white, with the half-scalped Tom Hardy practically twirling his mustache as he refers to Indians as “tree niggers” — one of the few things he growls through his Brillo beard that you can understand. (At times, I thought I could discern phrases like “kung fu” and “jolly brisket” in that mop-spatter of sad, orphaned syllables.) Hardy’s Fitzgerald also gets a monologue about how he met a man who thought a squirrel was God; then Fitzgerald killed and ate the squirrel. So he’s not only the Devil, he’s a god-devourer, like Galactus or Darkseid in the comic books.
In contrast to the racist, mutilated Fitzgerald, the thick-maned Glass (he even has all his teeth) has a dearly departed Indian wife and a half-breed son. He’s spiritually an Indian himself, just like Jack Crabb and John Dunbar. Despite that, we are shown that there are good Indians (the Pawnee) and there are “savage” Indians (the Arikara, responsible for the Saving Private Ryan massacre that kicks off the movie, though they too come in handy for the white man later on). Can it be that the critics’ dartboard The Lone Ranger actually boasted a more nuanced vision of indigenous Americans than this lionized sadomasochistic trip offers?
Iñárritu was already working on The Revenant when he won the Oscar for Birdman, otherwise I’d call this the classic post-Oscar folly. Now that it has twelve nominations of its own and is favored to take the big win in a month or so, it seems ready to become a folly atop a folly. There are a lot of elements yanking us out of possible absorption in this supposedly realistic film — a bear that doesn’t look quite real, other shots and sequences with obvious CGI doctoring. And yet the movie doesn’t even get as gnarly as the real story did — the actual Hugh Glass let maggots feast on his bearclaw wounds to prevent gangrene, and Indians sewed a bear hide to his back to cover the gashes. If you’re waiting to see that happen to Leonardo DiCaprio in a $130 million motion picture, keep waiting.