The Revenant is director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's best movie in ages — probably since his 2000 release Amores Perros. Considering his resumé boasts a Best Picture winner in 2014's Birdman, as well as another Oscar darling in 2006's Babel, that likely sounds like the highest possible praise.
It's not. Though I generally liked The Revenant, it definitely follows the same path as most of Iñárritu's other films. They're bold, stylistic experiments, exciting to watch and look at. But the second they're over, they evaporate, undone by thin themes and empty characterization.
In this case, that might be okay. The story of The Revenant doesn't really need deeper themes; man (real-life figure Hugh Glass, played here by Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by bear, then drags himself back to what passes for civilization on the frontier to exact revenge. It could be a mean and nasty pulp tale of blood, horror, and vengeance.
But Iñárritu and company present this story as if it's saying something meaningful about, well, something — probably the human need to survive — and that's what ultimately does it in. The promising pulp tale becomes trapped inside of an overwrought, overstuffed prestige picture that ultimately doesn't have anything deeper to say than, "Life is pretty tough, and then you die."
Let's survey the good, bad, and weird of this really, really weird film.
Good: The Revenant might be the most beautiful film of the year
There's one main reason to see The Revenant, and it's a big one: This is one gorgeous movie. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who has won two consecutive Oscars for cinematography, for his work on Gravity and Birdman) used natural light as often as possible while tracking their hero's journey through the American West in the 1800s, far away from any sort of help or refuge.
As such, they manage to depict certain qualities of light that I don't think I've ever seen presented quite so beautifully onscreen. In one sequence, Glass comes upon a man standing by a fire in twilight, the dark blue sky heralding a blizzard whose first few flakes are beginning to fall. Somehow, Lubezki captures both the foreboding of the darkening sky and the warmth of the firelight — as well as its alienness when surrounded by so much nothing.
This continues throughout the film, which was shot on location in Alberta and Argentina. Every account of the movie's production makes it sound like the kind of shoot where everything went horribly wrong, but the results look spectacular. The Revenant is a movie worth getting lost in.
Bad: Any character not named Hugh Glass
The film keeps checking in on the adventures of John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy with Kathy Bates's accent from the fourth season of American Horror Story, and his teenage companion, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), who attempt to get back to a far-off military fort after leaving Glass for dead. All three started out with a party of fur traders, but the bear's attack left the other two to stay behind with Glass until his presumed death — until Fitzgerald does something truly unforgivable (about which more in a moment), giving Glass reason to track him down.
The film also checks in with a group of Native Americans who are searching for a missing girl, as well as the rest of the fur-trading party Glass was scouting for before meeting the bear.
This gives the whole movie a weirdly episodic structure, where none of these side storylines contribute much to what's happening with Glass. There's a sequence where it seems like Glass's party might be hopelessly lost without his guidance — but then the next time we see them, they're back at the fort. Similarly, the Native American group doesn't ever gain real relevance to the story, outside of a brief intersection with Glass's own tale.
Watching the film, I was reminded of the 2010 remake of True Grit, which harnessed some of the weird wildness of the frontier, the sense that anyone you meet coming around the bend could be a new friend or your murderer.
The Revenant tries to funnel some of that uncertainty into a sweeping epic, but none of the other characters find a niche within the story to fill, beyond serving as hardships for Glass to overcome.
Good: Leonardo DiCaprio!
There's been plenty of mockery of DiCaprio's inability to win an Oscar for his acting, despite several prior nominations. (And he totally should have won for The Wolf of Wall Street, while we're on the subject.)
Plus, every story about his performance in The Revenant has to mention the many miseries he suffered while shooting the film in the name of authenticity. He crawled inside an apparently real horse carcass, for God's sake! Give him an award!
But you know what? DiCaprio is really, really good here. It's not his finest performance ever — he's most skillful when he's playing a character who can charm you, then stab you in the back, and Hugh Glass isn't that — but it's an intensely physical, surprisingly nuanced turn. He's the only person on screen for most of The Revenant's running time, and he's never anything less than committed. He really does seem to be channeling everything he has into the role.
Bad: What the hell is this movie about anyway?
Everything about The Revenant screams self-importance. There's the whole "shooting in natural light" thing. There's the two-and-a-half hour running time. There's the entire promotional campaign centered on DiCaprio's bravery in taking the role, the bluster over the film's raw realism. And there's the general tone of naturalism, the insistence that we're looking at the world as it really is.
But The Revenant is ridiculous. It takes an already interesting true story — about, I'll remind you, a man who was mauled by a bear and dragged himself to survival — and heaps even more misery on top of it. Glass has a son who accompanies him on his voyage; would you believe that son is felled by the hand of Fitzgerald, setting up the revenge portion of our tale? Well, he is.
Iñárritu frequently holds on close-ups of DiCaprio's face, flecked with spittle, eyes wide and uncomprehending at the sheer brutality he's had to endure. He looks like hell, and when the soundtrack fills with whispered memories of his philosophy about survival at all costs, it's clear The Revenant is straining for some kind of transcendence. But it doesn't have the first clue what it's trying to say beyond, "Sometimes shitty things happen, but people get past them." That's a decent idea for a movie, but not one as insistent upon itself as this one.
Weird: This movie is basically a remake of The Good Dinosaur
If you read my review of November's Pixar release, The Good Dinosaur, you'll be surprised at how many of my complaints about that film also apply to The Revenant, from its general inability to track the geography of Glass's journey to the way the film's big death is derivative of so many other works to the sheer visual splendor of both films.
Granted, "a long journey through the American West" isn't the most original idea in the first place, and lots of movies with that general description are stone-cold classics. But both The Good Dinosaur and The Revenant feel trapped by their road-bound nature. Neither elevates the trek from "a series of events that happened" into a real story.
And that's okay. Not every movie must concern itself with the world's deeper mysteries. Sometimes you just want to see a bear shred Leonardo DiCaprio's back. But it's hard to shake the thought that The Revenant is very, very good at being one thing, yet wants desperately to be another and never quite gets there.
Also weird: How on Earth did that "bear rape" rumor start?
The Drudge Report's Matt Drudge suggested this film features a bear raping DiCaprio, but it doesn't contain a single shot that would seem to imply such a thing. Also, the bear is a female bear. This is one of the weirdest notions of the year.
The Revenant is playing in limited release. It will play everywhere starting Friday, January 8, 2016.