The Revenant is punishing. If frozen-snot shards aren't blowing into a character's eyes, arrows are sailing through his tender hide. Directed by Birdman Oscar-winner Alejandro Iñárritu, the film -- out Dec. 25th -- drags Leonardo DiCaprio through a backwoods gauntlet of mud, snow, and his own frothing blood until it scrapes off every last bit of his A-lister veneer.
The gorgeous and gory visuals are enough to make it more than your average revenge story, but Iñárritu is also on the hunt for profundity. He never discovers it. The Revenant slobbers and snarls without speaking to experience. The visceral pleasure of DiCaprio competing in American Frontier Ninja Warrior is all we get -- and it's almost enough.
Set in the late-19th century, the plot ignites when a Pawnee rescue party, in search of their chief’s missing daughter, attacks a band of American fur trappers. Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), the group’s guide, and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a brute looking to make a few bucks, are among the survivors who flee into the mountainous unknown. The escape goes smoothly until a run-in with an overprotective mama bear tenderizes Glass into ground beef. He survives the encounter, though Fitzgerald knows dead weight when he sees it. A few white lies (and vicious murders) later, Fitzgerald is on the move and Glass is up to his ears in soil, left for dead in uncharted wilderness. Only the thought of slicing the turncoat's neck keeps him from kicking the bucket.
Craft is the joy of The Revenant. The movie traverses some of the most stunning landscapes ever photographed for a Hollywood production. Then there’s the gory stuff. In the opening ambush scene, Iñárritu glides, like he did in Birdman, from one death to the next, gut-spilling captured in one fluid motion. It’s like Evil Dead by way of Terrence Malick. But when Iñárritu strong-arms character into the beauty, and that’s where the film stumbles. Poised as DiCaprio’s big Oscar play -- fact: the Django Unchained and The Departed actor has never won -- The Revenant ranks among his least interesting performances. The Revenant
stretches his epic quaalude meltdown from Wolf of Wall Street
to feature length. Special effects allow the director pound a little harder than possible -- the bear attack rivals Family Guy’s chicken fight
for sustained animal-vs-man brawls -- but for the most part, DiCaprio himself weathers elements. The actor recently told press he slept inside dead animals to give the film verisimilitude. It shows. He only gains control of his legs an hour in. And when he does, Iñárritu makes him his own personal Mr. Bill
. A scene where Glass rides a horse off a cliff cements him as one of the unluckiest motherfuckers in cinema history. It’s hysterical.
But Iñárritu doesn’t want you laughing at The Revenant. It’s a very serious film about fathers and sons and men and life. He wants you to roll alongside DiCaprio as he flails his way into an ice cold river. He wants you to watch greed poison Hardy’s character. He wants you to equate the earth with life once more. The movie is an extravagant “dad” speech: “Back in my day, we walked eight miles barefoot in the snow to hunt down the men who left us for dead!”
The Revenant slips when it refuses to settle for “the suck.” The elemental wonder is overloaded with flashbacks, stretches of contemplation, and plot-driven asides to colorful performances -- Ex Machina's Domhnall Gleeson steals some screen time as a vigilant trading company captain -- that lack substance. With diverted attention, Iñárritu resorts to manufacturing intensity. In a strange bit of fourth wall-breaking, characters constantly "bump” the camera. Their blood spritzes the lens. The movie pushes and pushes against nature to stir up revelations. Nature doesn’t push back.
For his survival epic Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog ventured to remote regions of the Peruvian Amazon to have his ass kicked. He hoped to walk away with more than a movie. He wanted to hear the land roar. “There is some sort of harmony around us,” Herzog once observed of the jungle. “The harmony... of overwhelming and collective murder ... it’s like a curse weighing on the entire landscape. And whoever goes too deep into this, has his share of this curse.”
The Revenant is bold, sure, but it doesn’t feel cursed.
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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment Editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. He quit Boy Scouts after one year because he didn't enjoy building hammocks out of rope. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.