Words by: Jack Dawson
Well, it’s awards season again and it’s time for Leonardo DiCaprio to try and get a golden statue from the same academy that repeatedly fails to watch every film that has been nominated for every category (cough, Animation, cough). This time around the forerunner for Oscars glory is The Revenant, a good old fashioned revenge story set in the early Nineteenth Century in America, where borders and frontiers are being secured, and emotions run high.
It’s the frontier, men are men, persecuted natives are persecuted natives, and revenge seeking-fathers whose wives appear for the purpose of motivation and angst are real revenge-seeking-fathers whose wives appear for the purposes of motivation and angst. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a guide for a merchant company who undertakes his journeys with his Native American son. However, after an attack by a local tribe of Native Americans, and an incident involving a bear, tensions begin to rise between Glass and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), until violent and bloody revenge is the only course of action left to Glass, or so he thinks.
This film has a lot to commend in it, though much of it is difficult to describe in a text review. The Revenant has no interest in the usual, folksy depictions of frontier life that gloss over some uncomfortable historical facts and romanticise the sheer amount of work involved in travelling from place to place without any kind of urban infrastructure. The American landscape is harsh and unforgiving, and the local Native American tribes are seeking vengeance for the theft of their land and the numerous atrocities visited upon them by the settlers.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy are also excellent in their roles. DiCaprio is able to, without any dialogue, flesh out his motives and thoughts through grunts and laboured breathing. And Tom Hardy has a lot of fun with his villainous John Fitzgerald, who walks a fine line between cartoon character and disturbingly realistic.
But as much as visual storytelling is The Revenant’s main strength, the story is what holds The Revenant back. Leaving aside the fact that the trailers spoiled most of the film, it’s a surprisingly simple story, and not the good kind of simple. Mad Max: Fury Road was simple, but with that simple structure and story it spoke volumes about the connections between toxic masculinity and refusing to confront the future. Yet all The Revenant has to say, with its gorgeous cinematography and visceral action, is that revenge is unfulfilling.
Well excuse me if I’m not floored by this revelation. I guess it’s just that the sting of that particular revelation has been sapped by the few hundred TV specials, Disney movies and Trash Anime shows that have run that message so far into the ground that it’s almost a novelty to see a serious-minded film present it without comment – or finesse, as it turns out. It’s one thing to present a bloody and harrowing tale of revenge, it’s quite another to pull the ‘revenge will not bring you peace’ at the very end without any build-up and without any real rationale.
There are many other issues present in The Revenant, which pile up and spill over into the movie without the protection of any kind of complex theme or coherency in the storytelling. I understand that human beings can take a lot of punishment and movies have free licence to push that to its breaking point, but The Revenant pushes that a bit too far. I heard laughter more than once in the theatre, mostly during the climactic fight sequence. Even Superman would struggle with some of these injuries, and while Leonardo DiCaprio does invest a lot of effort in looking as if he is constantly in pain, Glass seems to shrug off falling from a cliff rather easily.
I also have some reservations about the portrayal of Native Americans in the film. While it’s nice to see Native Americans playing Native American characters (Hello there Pan), there is few of them that actually get to play significant roles. Hugh Glass’s Native American wife and child mostly exist to die (and the former doesn’t even get a name), there’s a Native American who appears later in the film to help Hugh Glass out for no adequately explained reason, and the other major female character of the film who is also Native American exists as a Macguffin for a separate revenge quest undertaken by a different band of Native Americans.
These are the sort of problems that hang around, and keep coming up whenever a film is discussed by former fans or detractors, and a film with this much awards buzz will have the microscope turned upon it before long.
I’m not sure how to feel about The Revenant. Its success at the Golden Globes gives it good odds on nabbing a few golden statues at the Academy Awards, and that alone is enough to taint my perspective of it. It’s true, we see some of the most beautifully harsh landscapes in film but there are also some serious problems, which aren’t the sort that will go away with time. But if it finally ends Leonardo DiCaprio’s quest for an Oscar, then fine, he’s earned it with his acting in this film alone.
However, if it’s a slickly shot and ultra-violent film featuring Tom Hardy mumbling his lines that you are hankering for just go and see Mad Max: Fury Road.