As the ancient Klingon proverb states, revenge is a dish best served cold. And boy, is The Revenant a cold dish; Emmanuel Lubezki’s retina-destroying cinematography captures the harsh beauty of the snowy wilderness better than any other film I’ve ever seen, leaving you feeling like you’ve caught pneumonia purely by staring through this window into Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) world. For a film that captures so much brutality, it is unquestionably one of the most visually beautiful films ever made. However, the coldness doesn’t just relate to the baron landscapes, many of which have been photographed here for the first time.
This is an emotionally cold film, never giving us any reason to care about Hugh Glass’ quest for vengeance; after being mauled by a bear and left for dead whilst his son is murdered in cold blood next to him, his cross-country journey home should either be life-affirming or an existential look at the harsh nature of life whilst on the cusp of death. Instead, the film is emotionally and thematically empty, using the gorgeous cinematography as a means of distraction from how detached the film is from the characters and their extraordinary circumstances.
The Revenant is largely unfaithful to the true life story of Hugh Glass. In reality, he never had a son, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) wasn’t a villain figure and actually helped Glass kill the bear, only leaving him for dead as he actually thought he was dead. Of course, historical inaccuracies don’t necessarily make a film bad – after all, the film was originally developed by Oldboy director Park Chan-Wook with Samuel L. Jackson in the lead role (“I have had it with these motherfucking bears, in this motherfucking forest!”), an even more tantalising prospect. But with the amount of narrative licence being taken in this adaptation it is bemusing as to how it all seems solely to have been added to make it needlessly gritty, when the true tale is already harrowing.
By turning a true life story into a revenge narrative, you have the basis for a solid 90 minute period action thriller – this wouldn’t even dilute the artsier inclinations, as Lubezki won his first Oscar for his cinematography for Gravity, a 90 minute sci-fi romp where the narrative simplicity still catered for technical ingenuity. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu has needlessly over-saturated The Revenant; the film is 156 minutes long, with a huge chunk of the running time devoted to irrelevant footage, such as flashbacks and hallucinatory dream sequences. If he stayed true to the demands of the simplistic narrative, it would have packed more of a punch; instead, he has created a film that manages the bizarre feat of being technically groundbreaking, whilst frequently dull.
You could argue that this is to create tension between action set pieces – yet all it does is drain tension, not even using this time to develop characters or giving us any other narrative reason to care, merely to show off how beautiful the filming locations are. When the action comes, it is thrilling; Lubezki’s camera is never one to shy away from long takes, filming elaborate battle sequences in ways they have never been filmed before. But as the film progresses, these spasms of life are few and far between- this is a ponderous movie that doesn’t ever ponder on anything remotely interesting.
As for the performances, I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed. Leonardo DiCaprio may be undoubtably one of Hollywood’s finest actors, but in the role tipped to finally win him an Oscar, I was expecting something far more memorable; if this wasn’t released during awards season, there would be no Oscar talk whatsoever. It isn’t entirely his fault – the screenplay is so thinly fleshed out, there isn’t much meat for him to chew on to really get under the skin of this tortured character. The Oscar hype seems to be solely due to rumours of DiCaprio’s on-set method acting, sleeping in animal carcasses in order to better understand the role, amongst other activities that are far more interesting to read about than watch the film itself.
For me, Tom Hardy’s villainous supporting performance easily stole the show. I’ve never been as firmly on the Hardy hype-train as everybody else is – every time he’s given a role that singularly aims to showcase his acting versatility (such as Locke or Legend), he merely imitates unusual accents that prove distracting. Here, he actually breathes life into a fairly cliched villain, making him seem like a sociopathic threat, rather than a fairly ordinary big bad. Of course, this is highly likely due to his character being more developed than Leo’s – after all, more liberties were taken with changing the true life story with this character in order to fully realise him cinematically.
With the desire to film the movie entirely in natural light, the rapidly extended production process and the budget increasing by millions daily, Inaritu’s directorial quest for perfectionism seems like a job application to become the next Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s films were often described as cold, despite having more to say about the human condition than most contemporary cinema; Inaritu has made a film that tries to marry aesthetic perfection with a narrative soul, yet prioritises style over substance to a degree that just left me feeling cold. This is a movie that needs to be seen on the big screen – but it isn’t necessarily one that will linger in the memory outside of its visual prowess.