The implausibility of The Revenant is jaw-dropping.
The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. At Somerville Theater and cinemas throughout New England.
By Paul Dervis
Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu was praised last year for his film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It was hailed, amongst other qualities, as an amazingly visual film. And it was. The Revenant is as well. It is stunningly beautiful to look at. But is there a story amid all the oh-so-pretty pictures and bursts of bloodletting? A bit. But nothing in this yarn of extreme vengeance would have made director Sam Peckinpah, the master of violence and complex narrative, proud.
The Revenant revolves around a throwback to the the robotic anti-hero played by Charles Bronson during the 1970s, albeit the stoic figntin’ figure has been shoved into a time machine and beamed back a couple of centuries. Think Death Wish meets Jeremiah Johnson. In the first ten minutes of this film we see a couple of dozen trappers killed by Pawnee Indians (Native Americans?) as they are cleaning the pelts of their latest kills. And the Pawnees fare no better. The Native tribe is bartering the fur with French Canadians in exchange for guns and horses. Oh, yeah, it’s the 1820s.
The Chief of the Pawnees has another motive. He is searching for his daughter who ran off with a white man.
Not coincidently, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, had a Pawnee wife, now dead, and is raising a ‘half-breed’ son. The pair are much disliked by the other hunters; particularly a nasty piece of work named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).
After the near slaughter of the hunters, they retreat, heading back to base camp. On the way, Glass, in the woods alone, takes aim at some bear cubs — mom races in and mauls him before he can pull the trigger. This spectacular scene, easily the most talked about in the film, is a hauntingly realistic image of a savage animal attack. There has been much conversation about how it was filmed …which pretty well sums up the problem with The Revenant. It is not really a convincing drama: it comes off more like a prolonged special effects feature (‘Nature in the Wild and Some Wild Men’) that you would watch in an auditorium at Disney World.
Glass is found by his party, near death. He is bundled up, put on a makeshift sled, and dragged toward home. But the men cannot navigate the staggeringly rugged climate, made increasingly impossible by the deep snow. They opt to leave him behind with his son, Fitzgerald, and another young man: the idea is that they will bury Glass after he dies. But Fitzgerald grows impatient and decides to help the process along; Glass’ boy protests, so Fitzgerald murders him in front of the desperate but motionless father. Then he buries our un-hero alive.
End of story, right?
Not so fast. Glass has super strength, not to mention remarkable recuperative powers. Though one of his legs has been damaged (blood pours out of a hundred wounds), the bear somehow managed to give the guy a tracheotomy. He manages to pull himself out from under the earth and commences to drag himself to a fort that is many miles away. Despite a raging fever, he throws himself into a river that heads towards his destination. Wet, bleeding, with multiple broken bones, he stays alive with one elemental motive in mind. To reap revenge on the heinous man who needlessly killed his son.
And now, if you have to use the restroom, it is a good time. For the next hour of the film, there’s nothing new. He crawls, limps, and heaves his broken body forward in the brutal yet beautiful landscape.
The implausibility of The Revenant is jaw-dropping. There is no way this man could have survived the bear attack, not to mention a hellacious journey home that would have made James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer give up the ghost. Beyond that, we are supposed to believe that Fitzgerald’s decision to leave Glass behind is some sort of a surprise. Yet in an earlier scene the leader of the group, who is portrayed as a good and decent man, had a cloth placed over Glass’ eyes as if he was preparing the guy for a mercy killing — the way one would put a lame horse out of its misery. The fact that the leader didn’t have the heart to take that action is no matter. His intention was clear. But then, of course, the killing of Glass’ boy is another matter…
DiCaprio’s Glass is virtually mute. If this bug-eyed testament to super-duper tenacity reaps him an Oscar, so be it. (He’s been five times the bridesmaid, never the bride. No doubt DiCaprio will be nominated, but it will be a shame if he wins it for this performance. It should have been for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) In truth, Hardy’s portrayal of Fitzgerald, as one dimensional as it is, is ultimately more compelling than DiCaprio’s Energizer Bunny version of Bigfoot.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.