REVIEW: The Revenant

10 01 2016

Alejandro G. Iñárritu communicates powerfully in two registers throughout “The Revenant” – visceral violence and serene stillness. Working with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, he masterfully navigates between these two extremes. When the film needs to do so, it shifts registers from portraying the beauty of nature like Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” to showing how that same environment can harshly impose its fierce will such as in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

Lubezki enhances the naturalism by ditching the fluorescent lamps and employing only the light present at the shoot. Additionally, he stages many an elaborate long take with Iñárritu meant to keep the intensity moving forward as if the lens of the camera was the eyes of the audience. When these two elements mesh perfectly, “The Revenant” provides some of the most pulse-pounding, adrenaline-pumping cinema of recent memory.

But there are times in the mad rush of blood to the head where Iñárritu seems in a little bit over his head. As with “Birdman,” his reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. Though his movies all but scream their production values, they never come out quite as important or revolutionary as he thinks they are. For example, the tracking shots convey the intricacy of their planning as much as they provide an immersive plunge into the unforgiving American frontier. Each moment of greatness has some accompanying gloat visible down the road.

Leading man Leonardo DiCaprio matches this pattern in many ways. He stars as fur trapper Hugh Glass, enshrouded in a Kurtz-like mystery to his group of fellow hunters. They know little about him other than that he has spent a great deal of time among the indigenous people in the Louisiana Purchase, which thus makes him more in harmony with their harsh surroundings. Just how deep that connection with the land goes, however, gets a trial by fire as the team’s leader, Tom Hardy’s ruthless John Fitzgerald, essentially leaves Glass for dead in the brutal winter.

Tom Hardy Leonardo DiCaprio The Revenant

For most of the 150-plus minutes of “The Revenant,” DiCaprio summons a primal energy to power Glass through some of the most grueling hurdles nature can throw at him. But as this “Man vs. Wild” episode with the patina of prestige filmmaking continues to drag him through continuous crucibles, the line between character and actor becomes rather murky. Yes, it is clear as day that a commendable feral ferocity is frequently on display. But who does it really serve most, Glass’ journey in “The Revenant” … or DiCaprio’s firm establishment as a capital-A actor?

For nearly two decades, the “Titanic” star has sought time and again to shed his Tiger Beat, teen matinee idol reputation. As DiCaprio drags his body through the dirt and the ice, it sometimes feels like he’s trying to shed some kind of James Cameron-endowed exoskeleton. If he hits it against enough rocks, falls into enough trees or gets roughed up by enough ursine attackers, perhaps the culture at large will consider it gone.

This collapsing of inter- and extratextual meaning occurs mostly in the film’s middle act, where the most graphic of the violence has ceased and Glass simply pulls himself by the thinnest of threads through the forest. With no clear idea of why he clings so tenaciously to life, the mind drifts to other questions outside the narrative. Like, “How long did DiCaprio spend in post-production syncing audio of grunts and moans to match his mouth in this movie?” Or, “Was DiCaprio motivating himself by thinking about Glass’ ultimate goal – or his own goal of awards season and public glory?”

Ultimately, the motivation driving a performance pales in comparison to how it manifests in tangible characterization. DiCaprio gives 110% of himself to guide all those who watch “The Revenant” on a tough, painful journey with his character. While maybe 10% of that has some debatable qualities to it, he still pours out everything he has in the tank on screen. That, combined with some truly breathtaking visuals, makes the slight tendency towards aimlessness and bombast worth looking past. B+3stars



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