It is probably my own fault, believing on the scantest of evidence that director Alejandro González Iñárritu had found a new avenue for his artistic expression. As problematic as Birdman might be as the reigning Academy Award winner for Best Picture, particularly over Richard Linklater’s remarkable Boyhood, it signaled a useful shift in the filmmaker’s blindingly self-satisfied march through ever-mounting misery. The film still trafficked in overt nihilism, but couching it in the wryest comedy gave it just enough of a tinge of enlightenment to make it devilishly engaging rather than redundantly soul-deadening. If The Revenant is an accurate example of the thread Iñárritu plans to follow from here, it’s clear that his prior film was a digression rather than an awakening. And modern cinema is all the worse for it.
Officially adapted from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, which itself was drawn from a true-life tale from the early eighteen-hundreds, The Revenant follows the painful quest of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Employed as a scout for a group of trappers, Glass encounters a fleet of dreadful problems, all of them speaking to the brutality of the American frontier. A bear attack inflicts the most damage, leaving Glass thoroughly incapacitated, dragged fruitlessly for miles by his cohorts until it is determined he is approaching his final breaths. He’s left behind to perish in peace with a small group looking after him until the end. That number includes, implausibly, a hateful brute named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who openly advocated for a blunt mercy killing from the moment Glass’s ravaged figure was found. Predictably, matters do not proceed from there with gentleness and kind consideration.
It is already a story filled with dire turns, but Iñárritu approaches it with such eagerness to deliver an onslaught of agony that the relentlessness dissipates the intended impact. There is no apparent attempt to tether the characters and their situations to deeper emotional truths, the travails of all affected to a more resonant social or historical point. Some lax engagement with matters of prejudice against indigenous people doesn’t provide the needed depth, nor does it counteract the broader depictions of Native Americans in the film, which are stuck in a mode of earthbound nobility that feels painfully regressive. There are no people here, merely battered instruments led in their atonal playing by a callous maestro.
The whole structure of the film, whether in story or image, is atrophied by its calculation. The smoothness of the continuous take flow found in Birdman becomes grinding and mechanical here. An early sequence that echoes the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, with a frontier ambush in place of an World War II beach assault, aims to use the lack of an edit as a way to place the audience squarely within the bloody mayhem. The great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieved precisely that with the same technique in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. In The Revenant, though, the attempt is undone by the artificiality, with precisely choreographed flailing and exploding fountains of blood that would cause Sam Peckinpah to chortle at their overstatement. This is entirely representative of the way in which Iñárritu’s bludgeoning storytelling infects every piece of the film. Lubezki’s characteristically delivers striking images, but even those start to wear. Anyone wondering if they can experience too many imposing vistas of bleak beauty need only bring a tally counter into a screening of The Revenant. The limit will be found.
Iñárritu undoubtedly intends his film to be grueling, offering somewhat of a mirror of the terrors endured by its protagonist. Mostly, it’s dull, extending individual scenes well beyond optimum length. Points are made, pending outcomes are clear, and yet the narrative keeps shuffling along. This is cinema as endurance test, and it’s just plain wearying.