This past year has been an excellent one for trailers. I found the trailer for Carol more affecting than the full movie, and to some extent, The Revenant falls into that category as well. Trailers have the advantage of being short and sweet, of suggesting with the most fleeting of fragments what must (almost always) per force be elaborated and expounded at feature length in order to provide some kind of through line for the audience. (Rare is the feature film, even in the heady heyday of such features, the 1960s and 70s, that dared keep an audience hallucinating for more than 90 straight minutes). Trailers can often, through compression and a kind of distillation, intensify the themes and emotions of the film proper; of course, few take advantage of this in our era of thuddering robot superwhatever apocalyptics perpetually descending from the sky. The trailer for The Revenant was very dreamlike and hypnotic, suggesting an acid western set in the polar north, the setting perhaps scrubbing the film clean of that genre’s more egregious elements. I had the opportunity to see the trailer often over the course of the fall, and it raised the goosebumps every time. So stoked was I to see it that I actually had the release date memorized. Given my anticipation, it is no surprise that the film could not quite match it. And it is not only unrealistic, but undesireable, for a film to live up to its trailer. While we might think we want to taste only strong flavors, to be continually excited by thrills and chills, such moments can only stand out, and acquire a power that resonates as something greater than a mere image, by being cast against a continuum of “normality” (which is established differently by every film). For an image to have staying power, it has to generate more than an adrenaline spike or a soak of serotonin within us, and for that to happen, it must be surrounded by images that work differently, that labor quietly and don’t call us to attention. The ideal film, like a piece of symphonic music, marshals these two modes in a collaborative relation to each other, so that the quiet or “boring” parts build in such a way that the loud or “exciting” parts seem natural, or, even when surprising, a necessary result of the other. I can’t, then, fault The Revenant for not getting there; it tries, and comes close to the mark.
The film is a relatively straightforward survival and revenge epic, and I can elaborate the plot without spoiling anything, as the trailer pretty much reveals the major plot points. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a mountain man scout whose back story we only get a fleeting glimpse of. Having “gone native” and partnered with a Pawnee woman, who is subsequently killed in a French raid on their village, Glass is, at the outset of the movie, working with his adolescent son as guide to a party of trappers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). The trappers are a motley crew, with one in particular, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), carrying an unconcealed antipathy for Glass and his boy. Soon after the story begins, the trapping party is beset by a war party of another tribe set on recovering the chief’s daughter, who has been kidnapped. Forced to abandon their pelts and flee by river, the trappers, now reduced in number, must journey overland for their best chance at survival – or so says Glass. Fitzgerald is distrustful, and not shy about saying so, but he ultimately adheres to the orders of the upstanding Captain Henry. Soon everything is turned on its head as Glass is mauled by a bear while out scouting. Barely alive, Henry tries to carry him out of the wilderness, but is soon forced to abandon that idea, and Glass, in the interest of saving other lives. Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) stays behind to tend to Glass until his seemingly inevitable demise, along with the naive, straightforward Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald, who volunteers, Henry having promised those who stay a hefty reward later on. Within a few days, Hawk has been killed, Glass left for dead in a shallow grave, and Bridger and Fitzgerald are trudging their way out of the wilderness. At this point, the film transitions to a survival epic, as Glass hauls himself out of his grave, and begins the long process of dragging himself, injured, unarmed, and unprovisioned, to civilization, in the hopes of revenging himself upon Fitzgerald. How and if he succeeds in this quest, who he encounters along the way, and how the journey changes him are the subjects of the film.
The Revenant succeeds in building the kind of relentless pressure that is suggested in the trailer; Glass’s struggle to navigate the landscape as well as overcome his physical limitations, conveyed through DiCaprio’s performance, places the pressure of his body on the viewer. At the same time, his journey is plausible, both physically and historically, with the hallucinatory aspects a side effect of historical distance. Tom Hardy almost succeeds too well in his role, as Fitzgerald is almost sympathetic, an antihero rather than a villain; thus, while the final confrontation does have impact, it doesn’t provide the catharsis we hope for. (I know, I know, that’s probably the point, but after two hours of wilderness trekking on the verge of death, I think some catharsis is not too much to ask). The rest of the cast is excellent, in particular Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Henry – he is a portrait of moral outrage, uprightness, and his period flavor is quite canny. Formally, the film is innovative and compelling. Inarritu makes use of digital technology in the service of his trademark long takes to great effect, as in the opening raid on the hide factory, where the camera moves with horsemen, drawing near to their faces, then pulling away as they fall, wheeling about to capture a medium shot of action unfolding, panning up to see action in the trees, and the like, all without cutting. While the already famous bear attack does look like digital animation, it is incredibly well done, and still has physical force behind it – partly because the rest of the film is rooted in a very real, and formidable, landscape. It would be nice if more directors would follow Inarritu’s lead, and use digital technology to enhance reality, rather than to prop up blatant unreality. The film’s failures will also be familiar to the director’s followers. The relationship between Glass and his dead wife, portrayed in dream sequences or magical realist visions, we cannot say for sure, are quite pretentious, and a bit patronizing in their New Age-y view of Native Americans. Further, while DiCaprio is great in his role, he doesn’t quite look old, or grizzled enough, to pull off a realistic mountain man, and, more importantly, the father of a late adolescent. Because of this, his relationship with Hawk lacks the realism necessary to make Hawk’s death felt rather than merely symbolic. We never see enough of Glass caring for Hawk when he is younger, or struggling to raise him without his mother; instead, the flashbacks concentrate on the hazy details of the mother’s demise, which, after one iteration, is somewhat beside the point. Even so, The Revenant succeeds, and more so than last year’s overly lauded Birdman, as it has a straightforward drive that it mostly sticks to and delivers. The real star of the film is the setting, the landscape as a memento mori of and ode to an age when the struggle for human survival was primal and brutal. Like DiCaprio’s character, we are left feeling unfulfilled, the journey not quite accomplishing what we might have liked – but Inarritu nevertheless takes us farther than most other filmmakers these days.