The Revenant is a flawed masterpiece

the revenantA few months ago I was talking with a friend about The Revenant – he’d seen it, I hadn’t – and he said it was more of a “best director” than a “best picture” movie.  (I’m surprised he said that, as he’s a producer and I can imagine any producer would shudder at the thought of a remote location shoot using only natural light that was so stressful one of the actors allegedly assaulted the director.  But he did say it.)  Having finally seen The Revenant, I tend to agree.

Inarritu earned his directing Oscar.  The Revenant is nothing short of stunning.  All the headaches that shooting in natural light on location may have caused seem worth it for shots like a search party wandering through a forest, the scene lit only by torchlight, or for an epic aerial shot that zooms in on Leonardo Dicaprio hiking through a frozen, snow-covered river apparently in the middle of nowhere.  There is almost no limit to the list of beautiful shots.  At times, however, it’s unclear whether a shot of clouds swirling into a storm or an avalanche were meant as narrative or montage, although Inarritu states on the DGA’s podcast “The Director’s Cut” that he meant such shots to reflect the characters’ emotions . . . and happen in the background as well.  Not for nothing does this feel like a Terence Malick film, as DP Emmanuel Lubezki shot Malick’s last four films.

There’s also some amazing technical work, not only in the two standout action sequences – the first Indian attack and the bear mauling – but also in smaller scenes, like a nearly 5 minute oner of trappers carrying pelts up a hill that transitions from a wide shot to a crane to several two shots to an over-the-shoulder to a low angle.  According to Inarritu, these shots were extensively pre-vised and rehearsed.  It shows.  (The film’s making of doc, A World Unseen, is mostly a bore but does has some footage of the rehearsals.)  I prefer this style to some of Lubezki’s other work, such as the oner in Children of Men, as it feels much less showy.

But for every scene that’s breathtaking, there are several others that don’t work.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that the camera is almost always in motion, and that it’s superfluous in most shots.  So many two shots slowly push in, then cut, then reset to another two shot push in.  Inarritu says he always wanted the scale to transition from the epic to the human, but he takes it a bit far.  And while I admire the trinity of natural light, location, and no CGI, sometimes it hardly seems worth it.  Could the audience really tell the difference between a real avalanche (albeit one set off by charges) and a CGI avalanche when said avalanche takes up 10 seconds of screen time and is literally miles in the background?

I could go on and on about the technical details (the only one I’ll add is that I really liked the distortion in some of the scenes caused by using such wide angle lenses, which Inarritu and Lubezki didn’t even realize would be there), but the fact that I haven’t mentioned the story yet should tell you something.  I think Evan Pate at Papercut Weekly summed up the plot of The Revenant best: if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve basically seen the film.  There’s a powerful kernel of a theme there, but it’s dwarfed by the production.

In addition, there is one glaring plot hole.  The Indians that initially attack and occasionally harass Dicaprio are searching for a kidnapped daughter (in a neat, reverse-Searchers plot twist).  Along the way, they convince some French trappers to sell them horses by invoking their quest and the missing daughter.  Later, it’s revealed that these French trappers are the kidnappers.  Perhaps the initial scene is meant to show how duplicitous these villains are: they’ll trade with the very people whose daughter they’ve kidnapped.  But the scene is played so straight that it appears the French have no idea that they’ve kidnapped anyone’s daughter, let alone the daughter in question.

In the podcast, Inarritu says that he wants viewers to realize that revenge is empty, and that the personal journey Dicaprio takes is more important than its revenge-focused destination.  But he doesn’t give Dicaprio that realization.  Tom Hardy, playing a more complex and infinitely more interesting character, has the closest thing to a summary of the film’s theme: Dicaprio’s been through so much, first to survive and now to exact his revenge on Hardy for murdering his son and leaving him for dead, but none of it can bring his son back.  Then Dicaprio kills him.  And then the film ends.  Rather than a rumination on the toll of violence and revenge like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, it’s merely about the act of violence and revenge.

So while Inarritu may challenge George Miller in the retroactive best director race, The Revenant is no best picture.  Or maybe I just need to see it again.

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