18 January 2016

The Revenant review

Set in 1823, The Revenant is based loosely on the true story of Hugh Glass, a man who was left for dead by his fellow hunters after an attack from a Native American tribe. We follow him as he attempts to make his way through the wilderness and back to civilization, where the man who betrayed him remains unaware that not only is Hugh Glass still alive, but also determined to get his revenge.

Beyond the undeniably gorgeous cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki and the impressive "one take" action sequences that are littered throughout, The Revenant deserves none of the critical acclaim it has seen. An undeniably interesting concept, the story of Hugh Glass is wasted in a film that desperately reaches for depth that isn't there thanks to the ego of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. This ego shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone who has seen his previous film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), but it was easy to forgive in a movie that was legitimately entertaining, both on a technical level and as an interesting character piece (no matter how misguided its commentary on Hollywood may have been). It is harder to forgive here - winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) seems to have inflated that ego even more, and it has manifested itself in a film that never allows you to forget that you are watching an Alejandro González Iñárritu Picture ™, in all its glory.

An captivating action scene? Allow me to remind you that you are watching a film by having the camera lens fog up with the breath of a character. An important dialogue sequence? Please, pay attention to the constantly moving, uninterrupted camera, even if it does take away from the scene itself by confusing the frame. Any definition of the job title"Director" should at a minimum include directing the audiences attention to the things that matter, and Iñárritu's decision to sacrifice that in favour of highlighting how technically impressive The Revenant is (and by extension, how brilliant he is) says more than I ever could about where his priorities lie. He's more interesting in appearing great than he is in actually making a great film, something which when combined with a great cast and one of the best cinematographers in the world results in The Revenant being deceptively mediocre.

It is the 4th time that Leonardo DiCaprio has been nominated for the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award (and it is likely the year he will win it), but for maybe the first time not only do I think he doesn't deserve to win, but that even the nomination is unearned. It's not like the rest of the nominations accurately reflect what I would consider to be the best performances of the year, but here the Academy seem to be focusing on the hardships that DiCaprio went through to film The Revenant rather than the performance itself. At no point during The Revenant did I feel as if I were watching Hugh Glass on screen - instead, all I could see was Leonardo DiCaprio doing things that looked somewhat uncomfortable, and I think that labelling that as one of the best performances of the year is something of a slap in the face to all the other, significantly better performances from 2015 that didn't receive nominations. Yeah, it's pretty gross that DiCaprio actually bit into raw Bison liver on camera - but Jackass' Steve-O once vomited after someone shit in the fart mask he was wearing, and I don't see people clamouring to give him an Academy Award. No matter how much DiCaprio went through during filming, his role in The Revenant is nothing more than "good enough", and I'd hate to see an actor widely regarded as one of the best working today recognised for a role which doesn't actually show why people (quite rightly) think that.

All the other name actors in the film are significantly better in their roles, something which just further highlights how strange the decision to nominate DiCaprio is. Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson are obviously captivating as John Fitzgerald and Captain Andrew Henry respectively (when are they not?), but I'd also like to make special mention of Will Poulter. Seeing an actor I mostly associate with middling comedy films give a genuinely interesting performance was actually one of the few things in The Revenant that I enjoyed without some kind of reservation, and I hope that we see more of this side of Poulter in the future. The scenes where we follow characters that aren't Hugh Glass are the best non-action scenes in The Revenant, and for the most part that is thanks to the skill of these three actors.

But these scenes are not representative of The Revenant, and as soon as we focus on Hugh Glass again we return to a boring, excessive and vapid film that fails to impress on any level other than visual. Stripped of the empty, obvious symbolism and reduced in length, I don't see a reason that The Revenant couldn't have been a visually stunning and intense action/survival film - but Iñárritu can't allow it to be what it was clearly meant to be, and in aiming for something "more" without understanding how to get there he loses what he could have had. Is The Revenant exactly what Iñárritu wanted it to be? Almost certainly, and at times it shines - but those times are few and far between, and as a whole The Revenant simply fails to be worth it.

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