A lot of critics have a lot of nice things to say about The Revenant, a cinematic ode to a simpler time when men could have sex with bears without having to worry about the paparazzi. It’s a beautifully shot movie and Leonardo DiCaprio is legitimately good in it. That said, it’s far from perfect. We have complaints and, yes, we’re damn well going to share them.
Winston Cook-Wilson: Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s grisly, icy, feral blockbuster just won three of the most significant Golden Globe Awards, and scored a full 12 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Director. Sean has already speculated about how this came to pass — and how his wins with Birdman last year allowed Iñárritu’s self-consciously indulgent film to receive this level of exposure and premature commendation.
Given how silly a lot of what occurs in the film is — and how regrettable the dialogue is, one might be tempted to think that the Academy and the film’s other boosters were so ready to love the thing that they ignored most of it. In a film with such beautiful and unusual cinematography — Emmanuel Lubezki’s handiwork — perhaps it seems jejune to dig into the script to consider scenarios and logic. Still, it’s a worthy exercise.
Corban Goble: I sort of hate myself for being the “BUT IN THE BOOK…” guy, but when it comes to The Revenant, it’s a relevant place to start. The Revenant is by no means a very good book; it’s based on the historical account from which all of this is derived, written plainly and without any real style or slant by author Michael Punke. I bought it at an airport, I think. Anyway, armed with this understanding of The Revenant’s core story, the stuff they added to the adaptation is preposterously, mind-meltingly indulgent.
Hugh Glass’s son — Hawk, who is gutted by Tom Hardy while Glass can only watch, paralyzed by his injuries — isn’t in the book. There’s no subplot involving stereotyped A HAUH HAUH HAUH drunk French trappers raping an Indian girl, nor is there the sense of antagonism toward the Indian populations in the book. (Because of the invented subplot of the chief’s kidnapped daughter, the Cree — many of whom are played by actual Cree Nation members — are rampaging throughout the land, scalping at wi). The Pawnee buddy that Glass meets, who saves Glass by sharing his hunt and sheltering him from a bad storm, only to be killed by the French and displayed for Glass? Not in the book either, but the directors felt they had to lend some kind of heartwarming scene to the overwhelming ice of The Revenant.
The violence is over the top in a way that at times I think is sort of pushing the envelope, a la Bone Tomahawk, but at other times I think it’s intensity for the sake of intensity, devoid of expression. The gulf in sophistication between the majesty of how this movie is shot and what the characters are saying and doing in this film is uncrossable. Lubezki and Inarritu deciding to shoot The Revenant is like Néstor Almendros and Terrence Malick doing Lucky Number Slevin.
Wait shit I forgot about the ghoulish bro traipsing around the battle, only to shoot a horse in the face. That sure felt necessary!
Sean Hutchinson: I’ve skirted around my disdain for The Revenant on the site already, but before I jump in I should just mention that the movie is undeniably gorgeous. Every single frame of the movie could be singled out as some of the most beautifully arresting imagery ever put to film. My idea: Cut up the frames and put them in a museum. It’s too bad that the movie around such stunning visuals is a hopelessly dreary slog that doesn’t ever decide to mean something outside of “doesn’t this look miserable?” or “the retribution inherent in the human spirit is a savage thing.” The Guardian put it perfectly when they called is “meaningless pain porn.”
For all the talk of DiCaprio sleeping naked in a dead horse carcass, the moment in the movie for me was surprisingly pointless and probably the stupidest thing in the entire movie. By that point The Revenant just kind of tediously devolves into which ridiculous situation could Hugh Glass get into next. He rode his horse off a cliff, why not have him gut it and climb into the thing in between the remaining entrails for a nice nap?
The main problem with the movie is that it makes the mistake of portraying violence as the main point instead of stopping to make you care about the people the violence is affecting. If that were the case, The Revenant could have actually woven the harrowing events on-screen into a deeper thematic purpose. But nah, let’s just have him meet up with a good samaritan Native American and (spoilers) have that guy be brutally murdered five minutes later because human nature is vicious or something.
Probably the most stupid thing in the entire movie is the final shot. After this nearly three-hour bleak-fest DiCaprio, who has just witnessed the death of his enemy, sits frostbitten in an unrelenting wilderness blizzard and peers into the camera. Cue me laughing my ass off. The “stare-into-the-lens-to-make-the-audience-complicit” trick is that thing you do with your first student film in college to seem edgy, not the laughably bad ending to your magnum opus victory lap if you’re Inarritu. When the credits rolled and my laughter at that extremely stupid moment died down I had an even bleaker thought: I think the joke was on me for sitting through the whole thing.
CG: He dies in the book, BTW. Book spoiler! Hey it’s me, the book guy!
WCW: Yes, this movie is unbelievably beautiful. So was Gravity, which was also a Lubezki joint, but no one thought that was a Best Picture. I think the lines in The Revenant are probably better than Gravity, but I don’t think there’s much more going on behind this than like a Herzog-on-roids survival story that eventually — around the time of the events you mentioned, Sean, with the bison-liver-eating Native American, the cliff fall and totally unexplained horse gutting — gets lost in everything it can potentially do, and forgets why it’s doing it. Let’s not forget that unnecessary rape and stabbing of the French rapist at the same time. It came so late in the game that it felt like a true “What else does this movie need?” type of situation. “God is a squirrel” is like a Werner Herzog (parody) Tweet. Sorry, Best Supporting Actor nom Tom Hardy, but that monologue inspired a chuckle. It seemed like he might have improvised it, and not in a good way.
Come at me with any “It’s not about the script” rebuttals, but if the bits of dialogue you do leave strewn around highlight how little you truly have to say, that M.O. is a problem. The weakness of the script doesn’t make you feel better about sitting through all the ghastliness. It takes away from its power. That being said, I don’t think more worked-through dialogue would have necessarily helped matters, and because of the lack of dialogue, I think I preferred this movie to Birdman, which grated on me the more I thought it through. Pseudo-philosophy is absent here — relegated to sub-Cell and Fountain-like dream sequences, with that hovering wife ghost and the skull pile — and that’s important to me. But there’s no way to argue that half 2 of this thing ceases to be about much other than shock value; ironically, it feels like its most flaccid section. To me, it turns into Robert Rodriguez trying to make Aguirre, The Wrath of God or something, but yeah… hiring a dude who can shoot it better than Kubrick.
I mean, this movie is mostly about the injustices done to Native Americans right? All those super-filled-out, non-mystical Native American characters point to the dark truths of our nation’s past, right? Definitely.
CG: Yes. Given that this is going to win every Oscar in a way that is impossible to stop, The Revenant teaches us nothing except how to cynically manipulate the system. Congratulations.
SH: I’d reiterate the roided-out Herzog vibes and back up the cut-rate Malick aesthetic to the critique here too. It’s no surprise that Lubezki has been Malick’s go-to cinematographer since Tree of Life and it feels like Inarritu just said, “Make it look like that movie and I’ll add the misery and the horse guts.”
This movie says nothing really, especially about Native Americans and definitely nothing about revenge. It’ll win all of the Oscars, probably and finally for DiCaprio, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s just more proof that the Oscars are as meaningless as the themes of The Revenant itself.
CG: So what you’re saying is… nothing matters?
WCW: Not the Oscars anyway.