After seeing Alejandro G. Iñárritu's new film The Revenant, I'm left with some conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I really like it (and really want to like it). It's a stunning movie with some great performances and an epic nature that does well at drawing you in to the world it creates. But there are a few things that just don't sit right with me and stop me from crossing the line from liking it to loving it. The feeling seems familiar, because I had a similar reaction to last year's Best Picture winner and Iñárritu's previous film, Birdman. After seeing Birdman, I understood why it received general praise from most critics and filmgoers, but there were also some aspects that made me see why it could be more divisive among cinephiles. I couldn't quite wrap my head around what made Birdman just okay for me at the time. After taking in The Revenant, I think I'm beginning to understand why this particular filmmaker's work tends to leave me cold, no matter how much I try to enjoy it.
The Revenant is a frontier revenge tale that follows Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he hunts down John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a member of a fur trapping party he was guiding. After Glass is viciously attacked by a bear and barely clinging to life, Fitzgerald kills Glass' son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and leaves him for dead. A rage-fueled Glass begins tracking him down, stopping at nothing to kill the man that stole what remained of his family and humanity. He faces the harsh elements, wild terrain, and other unfriendly parties in order to claim his vengeance. It's a film that's part sprawling adventure and part claustrophobic breakdown. Ultimately it works, with gorgeous landscapes and well-crafted action, but it's still not the amazing film it could have been (or that some are saying it is). I thought Birdman contained a lot of mediocre writing that was elevated by some strong performances (particularly Edward Norton). From the opening scene of Michael Keaton's “It smells like balls in here...” soliloquy, I immediately disliked the film, but it was slowly able to bring me back around. The writing was the only concrete thing I could point to in my mixed feelings about it, but there was something else that rubbed me the wrong way that I could never quite put together. The Revenant is rather light on dialogue and allowed me to see a connection that was muddled by Birdman's fast moving/fast talking tone, which is the overabundance of style (seriously, you can choke on that shit).
While this film doesn't go after the appearance of a single take like its predecessor, it does contain many similar flowing camera shots and a need to be all up in the actor's business. The camera here spends much of its time flying around the action in scenes at about waist-level and moving uncomfortably close to each character when focusing on them. Seeing it in this film with such naturally open scenery and expansive locations as opposed to the small interiors and hallways of Birdman made me realize why I don't care for this aspect of Iñárittu's style. It's fucking distracting. I'm all for directors having unique touches and visual flare, but it shouldn't get in the way of the story you're trying to tell. If every time your camera moves, it has me wondering how the shot was set up, how many takes it took, or how you pulled off a sequence more than pulling me deeper into the film, it's a problem. Most of the action shots are like this, filled with so much in each frame that even scenes early on like the raid on the fur trappers camp, just feel exhausting. There were times when I'd feel relieved when the camera would slow down, things would get quiet, or Leo's face would fill the whole screen, because it allowed me to focus on what was happening. The Revenant has some fantastic shots and action scenes that impressed the hell out of me, but there were also times when the director felt the need to add more, only to take something vital away. There are instances of CGI that just completely took me out of the film. The bear attack is the best looking example of this, but it still looks so out of place amongst the natural landscapes and lighting Iñárittu fought so hard to get. It reminded me of the random bursts of CGI in Birdman that felt just as weird and out of place, even if it was in the character's imagination.
Tom Hardy is the Edward Norton of this movie, giving an amazing performance as the conniving and slimy Fitzgerald. Seriously between this, Fury Road, and Legend, Tom Hardy is a top contender for MVP of 2015. The supporting cast is equally solid, with the likes of Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter doing excellent work (also have to mention my boy Joshua Burge from the Animal Trilogy). That brings us to Leonardo DiCaprio, who I'm a big fan of. I think Leo is really miscast here as the lead. He's a great actor and I appreciate everything he put himself through for the role, but he never really disappears into the character. He's always obviously DiCaprio trying very hard to nail this role, with a build that seems to smooth and scrawny for this rugged mountain man, and a face that still seems too young to have this teenage son and to have gone through everything that character has. I'm honestly kind of surprised that there has been so much buzz about Leo finally getting his Oscar with this one. He was way more deserving for his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street based on his physical comedy work alone. Side note: There are a few times in The Revenant where Leo is wailing from his tightened and foamy mouth, unable to easily move or speak, that is just a little too hilariously close to DiCaprio on Ludes in TWOWS (See picture above). I'm pretty sure this film will pick up a couple of Oscars this year, but if this is the role that DiCaprio wins for, it will just continue to prove how meaningless the awards really are and how they are mostly honorary and retroactive.
All of this adds up to the main problem I have with this film and realized I had with Birdman, it just feels completely artificial. While they both have many positive aspects (this one more so) and I can say that I like them overall, I'm never able to become totally invested or lost in the story. It always feels like a movie, it always feels like actors trying really hard to do well at their job, and it always feels like a director trying to really wow me with how unique and impressive his filmmaking is. It always feels phony, like everyone made it not from a passionate need to tell a story, but because they knew it'd be a good career choice or they'd get to show off. There's no real heart to it and the emotions feel mostly forced. It was much easier to get invested and lost in something like the new Star Wars film, which is just plain silly when you stop to think about it...with its space planes and light swords. But I still recommend The Revenant, despite what you might think from all of this, and I recommend you see it in theaters. It is a visually remarkable film with stellar actors and an interesting story. It is definitely worth watching, but it's missing that special something that could have made it great. Like Birdman, it will probably get praised and discussed for a brief time until Oscar season passes and it starts to fade away from memory. It will be known as a good movie, but not a favorite, because there was just this thing about it that you can't quite explain, but didn't feel right.
7 out of 10 aggressively balding Tom Hardys