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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Revenant movie review: an extreme walk in the woods

The Revenant yellow light

High-toned body horror that emotionally and tonally starts on one note and never deviates from it, which becomes rather exhaustingly dull.
I’m “biast” (pro): like DiCaprio and Hardy, like Iñárritu

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Man walks into woods. Man fights bear. Man walks out of woods.

Actually, that makes The Revenant sound a lot more intriguing than it is. Leonardo DiCaprio is already in the woods at the beginning of the films. And he is still in the woods at the end of it. Oddly, while there is much climbing and descending of mountains, and dunks in raging rivers and leaps off cliffs, this is a very flat movie. Emotionally and tonally it starts on one note and never deviates from it. Perhaps that is meant to be indicative of the seething singlemindedness of both its hero and its villain… but it becomes rather exhaustingly dull. Perhaps this is what some other critics have considered “challenging” about the film, that it tests your tolerance for undiluted nonstop rage… though even that comes only from a distance.

Essentially, The Revenant is a high-toned horror flick that gets off on bodily destruction, and which turns the unkillable character who would normally be the monster into its protagonist. (This is genuinely a pretty cool idea, and isn’t a problem per se.) As the scout for a vaguely military fur-trapping expedition in the early-19th-century American West, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Gatsby) comes upon a momma bear and her cubs while reconnoitering ahead of the group, and momma bear attacks, as momma bears will do. (This is based on a novel by Michael Punke, which is itself based on real events.) There were some ridiculous rumors before the film was released that the bear in fact rapes DiCaprio’s Glass, which is absurd. And, of course, this is not what happens. But there is a powerfully intimate quality to how director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman) shoots this scene: it is very much about a physical overpowering and a violation of one’s bodily integrity, and it feels like it goes on forever. It’s difficult to watch in a way that is nevertheless grippingly cinematic as it puts us in the middle of something that most of us will not ever –would not want to ever — experience.

But once the film reaches this level of intensity, it doesn’t want to come down. We talk about movies being emotional roller coasters: The Revenant achieves that first and biggest-of-all apexes, and then it plateaus there. It wants to mine that same fierceness from every moment that comes after, from the rough attempts to patch up Glass with the rudimentary medical supplies the expedition has on hand; to the debate over how they should just let him die because he’s slowing down the group (which is being chased by nasty Indians, natch); to the team’s leader, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn) assigning a couple of guys including Very Bad Man John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy: Legend, Mad Max: Fury Road) to stay behind and watch over Glass while the rest forge ahead and get help; to Fitzgerald betraying Glass and leaving him for dead in the middle of nowhere; to Glass rising from his would-be grave now fueled by a furious desire for revenge against Fitzgerald; to all the terrible things he faces fighting his still badly wounded body and the deep cold to achieve that revenge (which he may or may not achieve: no spoilers!).

It’s not that The Revenant is relentless in its horrors or that it doesn’t let us catch our breath or that it indulges in the kind of nonstop thrill ride that often is a very exciting thing to experience at the movies. If it did, that would be fine. It’s that The Revenant is nonstop emotionally intense about its manly men expressing their uncomfortable feelings through grunting and violence and extremely extreme survival without making us truly share in their emotions. Though it clearly believes it is matching the vehemence and shock of the mauling scene, it never does… or perhaps it’s that by shouting too loud for too long, figuratively speaking, it loses whatever potency it might have had had it been more judicious. This is a very immersive film in some ways: ironically, unlike the monotone of its emotional palette, the near monochrome of its visual palette, all browns and grays and snow, really does put us there with Glass physically. I felt the bitter cold. But that undiluted nonstop rage I mentioned? I could see that I was supposed to be sharing in it, and it’s not the fault of either DiCaprio or Hardy — who are both fantastic here — that I never did. But, still, I never did.

Technically, The Revenant is a marvel. Iñárritu shot using only natural light, which adds to the sense that you are in a real environment and not on a pretend movie set. All of the animal sequences — not only the one with the bear but also a majestic herd of bison (and the pack of wolves that takes one down) and some extraordinary horse stunts — were pulled off with CGI, but you would be hard-pressed to guess that, it all looks very realistic. It represents an impressive and seamless blending of rough-and-ready low-tech — no artificial lighting! — with the best of what cinematic high-tech can achieve. But it’s all as cold as the snowy mountains it takes place on.


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Revenant for its representation of girls and women.


yellow light 3 stars

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The Revenant (2015)
US/Can release: Dec 25 2015
UK/Ire release: Jan 15 2016

MPAA: rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, bloody injury detail, strong language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • leah

    This fairly closely matches my own reaction to the movie — the film-making from a technical standpoint is very good, but for the most part there’s a flat, one-note, one dimensional quality and lack of range and emotional nuance that makes it weirdly dull and uninvolving.
    — POSSIBLE SPOILERS —
    The ‘meditative’ aspect of the narrative felt contrived and kind of pointless, perhaps because there’s little attempt to delve into real human emotion so the meditation on loss of loved ones past and present feels empty and a bit pretentious. There are some genuinely harrowing moments but nothing going on underneath the dour survivalist rage to underpin it, give the movie a human pulse let alone heart.
    I think I have to place some of the onus for this on DiCaprio and his perf; he’s convincing when it comes to the survivalist elements of the story and his character, REACTING to events as they unfold and battling the elements, but he can’t seem to build on the overt pain and rage with any emotional range or the subtlety and delicacy required to effectively portray grief and sadness, relief to be alive, gratitude for help etc . He does the one note well but it’s not enough, not a full tune let alone a symphony. It felt like the film-makers were trying so hard for naturalistic ‘realism’ they somehow forgot the most naturalistic element of all, subtle, compelling human emotion.
    (Also, for all the hullaballoo about using only natural light for realism, the dulled-down unnatural colour palette detracted from this considerably for me in what I assume is an attempt to appear relentlessly grim; anyone who’s ever actually spent time in even the most dull grey freezing conditions and weather knows how striking colour contrast can be in that environment, how skin tones pop in the cold, the clarity of green and red against snow, etc, I wish someone would make a film using beautiful natural colour for a change.)

  • MINOR SPOILER

    The ‘meditative’ aspect of the narrative felt contrived and kind of pointless

    You mean Magic Pixie Dead Indian Wife doesn’t count as “meditative”? :-/

  • Uraniabce

    It’s still going to win every award out there. All that manliness will sweep all the male award committees away.

  • leah

    Ha, come on Maryann, how would hero dude cope with heroing without a dream pixie chick to motivate him? :-P

  • walking man

    POSSIBLE SPOILERS

    I can completely understand these reactions, especially regarding the wife (the weakest part of the film by a long shot). But I really enjoyed the film, and didn’t find it unrelentingly grim or enraged. I’m not especially looking for subtle emotions in a movie about characters in survival mode: as everyone’s noted, the performances were strong, and the sublime visual and–no one’s mentioned the sound/score–aural landscape was what was dominant, to the point that the humans become just another vulnerable animal moving through the land. The moments of stillness were what was meditative about the
    film to me, not the flashbacks. And better integrated into the flow than say
    Terrence Malick.

    I agree about Glass. I thought Fitzgerald the most interesting character–you might even argue that he’s the story’s true protagonist, with Glass as the Terminator illuminating his choices. Glass never really makes a mistake and–with the exception of revenge, I suppose–always does the right thing; Fitzgerald is the flawed one.

    Is this body horror? I always think of body horror as coming from an inherent fear of the flesh, which I don’t see in this film at all.

  • leah

    “I’m not especially looking for subtle emotions in a movie about characters in survival mode”
    — SPOILERS —
    This is your prerogative of course. I think one problem I have with this though is that the narrative sets it up so that the reason Glass is driven to survive is to kill Fitzgerald for murdering his son in cold blood. It’s not a survival story per se, it’s a revenge story. And yet I didn’t feel any naturalism or nuance or tenderness or hint of emotion in Leo’s performance as a father with his child, it felt contrived as a set-up for what follows and nothing more. When he finds his son’s body in the snow and lays upon it, yes glass is horribly wounded and in survival mode but I didn’t FEEL a parent’s tender grief or the singular sadness and depth of loss of a parent losing a child, laying on their child’s dead body. There’s no emotional lynch pin in the story and Leo felt one-note – slightly overwrought anguish – pretty much throughout the movie no matter the circumstances. At times this works for the survival elements but it’s not enough, not for me anyway. It’s a failure in the film-making, which appears concerned with a form of naturalistic existentialism without providing a core emotional reason to care. I’m not convinced that because people are in survival mode their complexity of emotions and nuanced reactions go out the window, I’d think perhaps the opposite somehow.

  • walking man

    When conditions are this extreme, I think it does go out the window. But point taken: I agree the boy and their relationship could’ve been better developed, though it was less important to me.

    It doesn’t excuse bad film-making, of course, but I’m interested in the idea of subtle/complex/nuanced being superior–what do you make of this? http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2015/11/against_subtlety_the_case_for_heavy_handedness_in_art.single.html

    What’s a survival/revenge film you really enjoyed? Did you like the new Mad Max?

  • leah

    That Slate article is all over the place, a bit of a mess, lots of cherry-picked examples, sweeping generalisations and subjective opinion presented as fact to reach a dubious conclusion. In terms of what subtlety means and how it applies to art/cinema,
    I think there’s room for all kinds of expression from simple and bold (for instance I liked the recent Turbo Kid, which I’d place roughly in the survival/revenge category, more survival but there’s an element of revenge in the plot) to nuanced and complex. Subtlety often dovetails with complex, nuanced narratives/characters and more naturalistic art, which clearly has a vital and important place in culture. To think otherwise seems downright odd to me.
    I guess movies with both survival & revenge intrinsic to the plot are few and far between; there are so many good revenge movies like The Virgin Spring, Munich, In the Bedroom, I Saw the Devil, Hard Candy, Red Road, Unforgiven, Freeway (and lots of great survival movies too of course, modern ones such as the OG Mad Max II, Gravity, Wild, Into the Wild, Life of Pi, Children of Men, Castaway, The Road, I even have a weird soft spot for I Am Legend).
    I did like Fury Road a lot, which in a way is the antithesis of ‘The Revenant’, unabashedly bold and bonkers in design and execution, thematically brash, not concerned much with naturalism and yet anchored by a simple and straightforward but also fairly subtle turn by theron as Furiosa, In acting subtly, nuance and depth is so often about silent expression, all in the eyes, being able to convey complex emotion and feeling with a look, a gesture. The Revenant seems very concerned with naturalism and yet to me is consistently one note, which feels anything but natural to me. Leo has pretty much one look, one expression, one gear throughout most of the narrative, I guess that’s my issue with it in a nutshell.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    *slow clap*

  • camurcu

    Dear Critic,
    please quit Your job and get married to a real man.

  • Hank Graham

    While watching “The Revenant,” I found myself thinking about a scene from an old classic, “The Bad and the Beautiful.”

    In that film, Kirk Douglas as a movie producer has an argument with a film director who is, he believes, not shooting a particular scene with the attention it deserves. The director explains that yes, he could put more emphasis on the scene, but that if he did that, he’d be a bad director. The point, he tells his producer, is to know where to put the emphasis, and not try to emphasize everything. Douglas fires him, directs the film himself, and discovers too late that the director was right.

    You put your finger on it, MaryAnn. It reaches that high level in the bear attack, and then it never lets that go. I think Iñárritu needs to learn the “Bad and Beautiful” lesson.

    And the Native American Princess hit my buttons, in the way condescension and disregard for women hit yours.

    Still, not as truly awful and hateful as “The Hateful Eight,” but then what movie could be?

  • And the Native American Princess hit my buttons, in the way condescension and disregard for women hit yours.

    In this case, one character gets to be condescending along both ethnic and gender lines. That’s efficient storytelling!

  • FuujinSama

    My biggest criticism of the movie is this: I felt more connected to John Wick’s rage after they killed his dog, than to Glass’s rage after they killed his son.

    The movie is really good, but it just doesn’t reach me at all, emotionally speaking. I found myself feeling as if I was looking at an art piece, beautiful but not engaging. I could have stopped watching at any time without feeling extremely bad about it.

  • Well, the dog is more of a character in John Wick that the son is here.

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