It’s no secret at this point that The Revenant involves a bear attack, and the film is almost worth watching just for that sequence. I have never seen such a visceral and realistic animal attack on film, and though I know it involved some combination of trained bear and CGI effects, I still can’t figure out how they did it. Most of the attack is one long shot, as the bear bites and mauls DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass. At one point she lifts him entirely off the ground and shakes him like a human dog toy, and the camera never shies away–it’s so close, at one point the bear’s claws appear almost to touch the lens.
It had to trigger some instinctive terror for DiCaprio, being beneath a massive grizzly bear trained to feign killing him, and it looks incredible on camera. When it ended, though, I felt worse for the bear than for Glass.
That’s a nice summary of the film, actually. It’s a masterful piece of cinema, and well worth watching just to witness the artistic feats of actors, director, composer, and production crew. Tom Hardy so disappears into his role, adopting his now-standard fake accent and speech pattern, that he was on screen ten minutes before I realized it was him. Iñárritu’s directing is spellbinding, soaking in the raw wilderness surroundings and turning again and again to the sky in admiration.
It’s not, however, particularly moving. Even if you don’t already know the story of Hugh Glass, folk hero (as I didn’t), any experienced moviegoer knows where Glass’s story is heading, and The Revenant gets there in linear fashion, throwing misfortune after misfortune at our hero until we reach the inevitable conclusion.
The sky seems to be a leitmotif in many of Iñárritu’s films; I was struck particularly by a shot, with no particular relevance, of a red comet streaking across a pale blue sky. It has no apparent connection to the story, and mirrors an almost identical shot that opens Iñárritu’s previous film, Birdman. Fans of that film (I am among them) spent days agonizing over the meaning of that comet, and never came to a satisfying conclusion. When it pops up in The Revenant it feels almost intentional–Hi, remember this? Bet you still can’t figure out why it’s here!*
In general, Alejandro González Iñárritu does not have what I would call a light hand. Though beautiful, his directorial choices often serve to remind you that he’s there working the camera, as when Hugh Glass is freezing to death and the camera pushes in until his breath fogs the lens. While an interesting choice by the filmmaker, such touches serve to distance the viewer from the experience–you don’t fret over the fate of Hugh Glass the character so much as stare in fascination at Leonardo DiCaprio the actor.
He submerges himself in icy river water! He eats an actual raw bison liver! He (mild spoiler here) guts and climbs inside a horse!
I’d heard rumors before seeing the film that they purchased an actual dead horse for Leo to gut and sleep inside, Luke Skywalker style. Reports now say that is a myth, and the horse was a prop, but watching the sequence one can’t help wondering if that’s a talking point to throw PETA off the trail. Even if it is a prop horse, it hardly diminishes the incredible lengths Leonardo DiCaprio goes to get his
Oscar movie, I mean.
It sort of makes me hope the Academy snubs him yet again, because I want to see what he’ll do next. Self-immolate, perhaps.
There is also the matter of how The Revenant treats the indigenous populations it portrays, especially after Leo’s Golden Globes speech called out the need to protect indigenous lands. I won’t pretend to be an authority on the proper portrayal of Arikara, Pawnee, and other tribes. Other people have done a more thorough unpacking, but the overall presentation struck me as complex, historically accurate, and generally fair.
It is a bit troubling when the first indication of Indian presence in the film (other than a brief and cryptic flashback) is an arrow that arrives from off-screen to kill a white man, and there’s no denying that the Indians in The Revenant are depicted almost solely in terms of their relationship to white frontiersman. However the film avoids one-dimensional portrayals–the tribes are not universally aggressive, or passive, or friendly, or wise, but present different aspects in different scenes.
We see the aggressive Arikara, who attack on sight, but we also learn why: They are hunting down white men who abducted the chief’s daughter, Powaqa. The Chief even gets a brief speech in one scene, confronting French fur traders on the many ways they have abused his people and their land.
We also see a cautious but compassionate Pawnee man, who helps Glass even though he is traveling alone. We get glimpses of Glass’s former life with his Pawnee wife and son, and the Union soldiers who come to burn the village, a brief glimpse of the United States’s largely ignored genocide against native people.
And let’s not forget the Indian women we see, held captive by white men (literally and practically) and used as objects for their bodies and their companionship. At times the treatment of the only women on screen in The Revenant is excessive–in the film’s artistic low-point Powaqa is raped, because she is a woman in an American movie so of course she is. Her rape serves no purpose except to establish her rapists as really bad men, and to set up a later twist that 100% of moviegoers will see coming from the moment it’s set up.
Of course, the abduction and rape of native women was a grim reality in the time and place The Revenant depicts, and it is clearly intended by Iñárritu as symbolically tied to the rape of all indigenous tribes by white America. I will not defend the film’s treatment of women, but I will say that it seems to be a considered artistic choice.
The Revenant is not my favorite movie of this awards season (that would be either The Big Short or Mad Max: Fury Road) but it is an absolute feat of filmmaking. While it’s hard to imagine any viewer caring passionately about the fate of Hugh Glass, the movie is equally entertaining as the story of Leonardo DiCaprio, a man similarly focused on his singular quest for an Academy Award.
*Iñárritu’s himself explained the Birdman comet thus: “It’s one of those unconscious things and I saw some images of comets and I began to understand something that I was feeling but was not able to articulate in the script. When I saw that comet, [I thought] it was a way for me to say, without actually saying, the state of mind of this character [Riggan] — he was a guy on fire, he was inspired, he felt that he was flying as a superhero, that he was a star.”