The Revenant: Gimme Back My Gun!, by David Bax
By all accounts, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant was a difficult film to make. You wouldn’t need to be familiar with the interviews and behind the scenes stories to know that, though. It’s all up there on the screen. The wind screams, ice cold water rushes and bites and, in every way, the elements bear down on each man and woman on screen, as they must have on the entire crew. Paired with Ryûichi Sakamoto’s relentless, percussive score, it would be a vast understatement to call the achievement impressive. Yet, after last year’s shrill and exhausting Birdman, it’s beginning to feel like Iñárritu believes achieving something difficult is reason enough to make a film.
The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a fictionalized version of the real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass. In this version, Glass has a son (Forrest Goodluck) and a late wife (Grace Dove in flashbacks), both Pawnee, and is serving as a guide to a team of fur trappers traveling through the far north reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. After being mauled by a grizzly bear, Glass is left for dead by a cruel and craven member of the party named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). With gaping wounds, little clothing and no supplies, Glass sets out to make his way back across the harsh, snowy terrain toward his revenge.
Iñárritu kicks things off with a dreamlike flashback to happier times with Glass and his family. The scenes here are chronologically disjointed with DiCaprio’s disembodied whispers as narration. With cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the cameraman’s collaborations with Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, To the Wonder). The comparison doesn’t last, though. Malick glorifies nature but this sequence is the last time the macrocosmic wondrousness of the outdoors is not accompanied by an overwhelming sense of threat. We snap from Glass’ past idyll to a frozen moose hunt that is itself soon interrupted by a raiding team of Arikara. From this point on, Lubezki is back in his Iñárritu mode, his wide-angled frame moving through chaos with mechanical precision, from close-up to pan to wide shot in long, unbroken takes.
That raid is perhaps The Revenant’s crowning set-piece. Like the opening of Saving Private Ryan in miniature, it’s bracing and gut-wrenching and it sets the stage for a story in which death is always in the air, poised to pierce the throat of the next poor bastard who so much as steps left instead of right. The oppressive specter of mortality is repeatedly undercut, though, by Glass’ increasingly implausible ability to survive anything. That raid is only the first such instance. Mauled by a bear? Sure! Swept through icy rapids? No problem! Horse rides off a cliff? Kid stuff! It’s difficult to square Glass’ superhuman ability to not die with Iñárritu’s view of nature as a force of uncompromising malevolence. It’s also troubling that, despite the Arikari having a generic backstory that explains their pursuit of Glass’ team, the Native Americans in The Revenant are depicted more as another agent of the hostile landscape than as fellow humans. For what’s it worth, the same can be said of the French characters.
When Iñárritu and his co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith (adapting Michael Punke’s novel) do get around to locating a symbolic explanation for Glass’ endurance, it is dishearteningly pessimistic. He perseveres because he becomes more like an animal, grunting inhumanly (and sounding much like the bear that attacked him) as he sinks his teeth into raw buffalo organs, blood running down his face and arms. Eventually, he is reborn, naked, from the carcass of a horse.
As a metaphor, Glass’ transformation runs out of steam well before the film has completed its long runtime. Iñárritu is far more interested in scope than depth. The Revenant is a series of conventions writ large, like a 90s Mel Gibson thriller projected on a mountainside. Such a flimsy underpinning for such aesthetic grandeur can only collapse quickly.