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.