This is a reposting of an essay I did for Killer Moose.
Warning: SPOILERS abound
If asked to describe The Revenant in a few choice phrases, I might say it is always visceral, at times surreal, and thoroughly existential.
I would also say it is rather stubbornly devoid of much else.
It should be no surprise to anyone that this is a visually stunning film. That’s apparent from the opening attack scene. The camera tracks and swirls as a hunting party is besieged on all fronts; everything is brown and grey; and everyone is dropping mid-shout in sprays of blood. It is an intense, jaw-dropping set piece that immediately tells you: nowhere here is safe. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki could win the Oscar for that scene alone. (Seriously.)
But outside of the chaotic splendor of their multiple violent sequences, Iñárritu and Lubezki do an even better job of finding continuous — almost otherworldly — beauty in the omnipresence of the barren, creaking trees, and frigid water. In particular I found myself drawn to the water, to how gorgeous and rolling and frightening Lubezki made it look.
But herein is part of the problem: the environment in The Revenant is so much richer and deeper than any of the flesh and blood people who keep spilling said flesh and blood all over the snows and soils. By the time the film concludes, rather than being a raw human drama of survival hewed from the brutal landscape, it has become instead something more akin to landscape impressionism brutally hewing into its characters.
I’ve seen a number of reviewers discussing an ‘emptiness’ in this film. And perhaps this is why. For all that film is a visual medium to communicate, and the feelings evoked by these visuals can be extremely powerful beyond classic narrative, the art of film is still in essence another medium for story. And stories need a heart — they need that beating organ that Iñárritu seems so willing to carve out of this equation and throw in your face.
Did I honestly, deeply, humanly care about Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) surviving, and thus getting revenge on Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) for the murder of his son? Answer: I guess? Sort of? I don’t know that I ever felt invested enough in that father/son relationship before said murder occurs. And while there is, I admit, an argument to be made that DiCaprio manages to wordlessly imbue Glass with a soul (because it is very sparse dialogue)… I could also make the snarkier argument that his “performance” consisted of caking himself in mud, placing himself in extreme circumstances, wheezing for 2.5 hours, and merely not dying at the hands of his director.
Is there anything recognizably human about the murderous Fitzgerald? Anything that makes me feel like perhaps this all a complex tragedy of conflicting experiences and motivation? Answer: Nope! He’s just a villainous monster; and not even a great one. For all that Tom Hardy’s performance makes Fitzgerald a genuinely unnerving bundle of desperate greed and feral self-conviction, he never has another layer to him. And while I can entertain a debate on whether his character needed to be anything more than a monster, I do believe that the best human monsters need those tiny moments, those infinitesimal shades of reading as human before we can be horrified by them.
Sidenote: I do think the film comes close to achieving moments of real character with both the weary, you-know-he’s-so-fucking-doomed Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), and in-over-his-head derpster Bridger (Will Poulter). But very disappointingly, their borderline compelling roles require them to remain mere footnotes in Glass’
revenge quest survival horror.
Let me put it this way: if the reason I’m supposed to endure Glass’ brutal trials is because I must profoundly desire his survival in order for him to enact revenge, then perhaps it helps if Glass himself is a fully-fleshed person? And/or perhaps the man he has targeted is more than a simple caricature of Awful?
By the time Glass and Fitzgerald meet again in the final minutes and have their vicious confrontation, I’m not so much cheering for Glass as I am desperate to be rid of Fitzgerald. And those are not the same thing. This also means the film is never confronted with any deeper moral questions about revenge. If Fitzgerald is nothing but a greedy bully, there is no internal moral quandary for anyone involved. And without said moral quandary, without the concept of revenge ever truly coming into emotional play, the film instead becomes wholly defined by its external obstacles.
I think this may be part of what makes the film feel empty, pointless, and so pervasively off. Because by its very title, everything about The Revenant implies vengeance. And yet The Revenant is never an actual revenge tale.
A revenant, traditionally speaking, was a corpse come back to life to wreak havoc on the living. Often these corpses were bad people in life. After barely surviving being mauled by a bear, watching his son get murdered, and getting left to die in the wilderness, Glass very literally crawls out of a grave. Now since nothing in the film leads us to believe he was a bad person, we know he is not suffering penance; but neither does he then proceed to terrorize the living in an all-consuming quest for vengeance. We assume he wants to find and kill Fitzgerald, yes, but the film is not comprised of any kind of dogged pursuit. And Fitzgerald himself is far from terrorized; not until the last stretch of minutes does he even know Glass is alive, and by the time he makes a break for it we are at their final confrontation. No, Glass is the one terrorized — by nature itself.
In most cases the story isn’t found in the destination, it’s found in the journey to it. And in The Revenant, Glass’ journey is what comprises the bulk of the film. And what is that journey? Well it is violent obstacle and tragedy followed by violent obstacle and tragedy. It is an extended string of awful, culminating in nothing. Because Glass doesn’t even fulfill his revenge in the end! “You can kill me and I hope you enjoy it, because it still won’t bring your son back” is (approximately) what Fitzgerald tells him; and Glass lets Fitzgerald go, citing “revenge is in God’s hands.”
In other words: even revenge is meaningless, and man cannot command even his own desires in the face of God/Nature.
So. After everything he’s gone through Glass is once again bloodied and shivering, and is in fact left with even less than he started. By the time we reach that final fourth-wall-breaking moment, we have watched him be repeatedly crushed and torn apart by Nature and Circumstance, only to see him fulfill nothing, and then are witness as he is cinematically abandoned as an eternal, broken victim.
And if this man at the center, at the core, at the heart of this cold, extended torture fest is never fully human, nor ultimately any more than an irrelevant pawn… then all we are left with is meaningless, empty brutality and savagery.
I’d like to point out that even Cormac McCarthy, that ultimate grandmaster of The Bleak Exploration, always always always understood human weight and cost in what he wrote. That’s why his work hits so damn hard. The bleak brutality has purpose behind it.
But there never feels to be any such weight or purpose anywhere in The Revenant, other than perhaps a single note with Glass and a lone Pawnee man he befriends. The man has also lost his family, and the two travel together briefly. In probably the most effective human moment in the entire film, the two men sit and catch snow on their tongues together. Of course, the Pawnee man is killed and hanged soon after…
Because in The Revenant, the people do not matter. Not when faced with wilderness.
And hey, if that’s honestly the point then I suppose ‘bravo on technical accomplishment,’ but for fuck’s sake, that’s an overly simplistic point. Even an animalistic one. I walked out of the theater pondering how the film seemed like it could have been made by Fargo (tv series) antagonist Lorne Malvo (if he watched movies, of course)… 2.5 graphic hours indulging in a philosophical outlook that seemingly wants to define human experience as nothing more than animals at the mercy of our own natures and the nature around us.
But fuck that. I don’t believe that.
Humans aren’t animals. That’s what makes them human. They’re difficult and complicated and contradictory; they have dreams and emotions, and the capacity to understand them and by that understanding make conscious choice. Sure, deep down we’re all an equal mess of impulses and desires and fears, and we all struggle with the same questions over and over — but what makes us all worth it is in the details. Much like how we tell the same stories again and again, but find our individual wonder and beauty in the various details. Can Nature exert its power over us? Absolutely. Nature can be fucking terrifying; but for all that it can so easily destroy us, there is more to humans and life than simply whether or not it does. “Pure survival” isn’t everything. The raw power of Nature doesn’t trump the unique human capacity to still be human.
And if it does, if nature truly trumps humanity, then why pursue art in the first place? Why tell stories? Telling stories is one of the ultimate extensions and expressions of our shared humanity, so I suppose I genuinely do not understand how/why anyone would go to such lengths to create a film that conveys it’s all meaningless. You are denying your own pursuit.
Ultimately, The Revenant is visually beautiful, intense, and unrelenting. It is a stunning technical achievement, and it is probably going to give Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar. But from where this human is sitting, it is also soulless and hollow, all sound and fury signifying nothing.