Spoiler alert: There are spoilers about the end of the movie towards the bottom of this post.
The Revenant has been getting a considerable amount of buzz lately; scooping up awards at the BAFTAs, and being nominated for twelve Oscars. I won’t speak to the Oscars in this blog because this is the only Oscar nominated movie I have seen. But I will say that it deserves considerable praise and that it feels very much like an Oscar-winning movie.
When I first sat down to watch The Revenant, I didn’t realise it was directed by the same person who did Birdman, but within the first ten minutes it became obvious. This movie pulls you in to the screen in a way that very few other films I’ve seen do. This is thanks to the long elaborate shots that Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu is so fond of. The setting is a particularly interesting choice for this kind of cinematography, bringing you very close to the action occurring on screen. And there is a whole bunch of action. To say that nothing really happens in this movie would be undermining the well-orchestrated and brutal action scenes. In one of the first scenes, for example, the camera swoops around a battlefield, following characters as they fight and die in all the bloody gore that you would expect in these muddy conditions. Watching this film, I felt like I was matted with blood and covered in dirt – much like the characters on screen. I would definitely recommend watching this in the cinema (as does Mark Kermode in his review of this movie) to experience the immersion to the fullest.
After engrossing you into its brutality, the movie then throws the notorious bear scene on you. This continuous shot seemed to dragged on forever and, combined with the bone crunching sound effects, I physically cringed as Leonardo DiCaprio was torn to pieces by this huge animal. It made me feel as uncomfortable as the infamous rape scene in Irreversible, and it felt just as long too. I was surprised to discover that the bear scene only lasts five minutes because when I watched it, it felt like much longer.
Tom Hardy puts in a solid performance as the antagonist in the story. His slightly unhinged bloodthirsty look gave the impression that he could snap at any moment. His interactions with Bridger, played by Will Poulter, were terrifying – ranging from deceitfulness to outright intimidation to bend the young soldier to his will. The character of Bridger is also a very well-written entry point into this world for the audience. His gullibility – a result of his inexperience – and wide-eyed fear of the world around him give us something to relate to in this hellish wilderness that the movie is set in.
Many times while watching this film, I was reminded of The Thin Red Line – particularly the more surreal moments where we get some backstory into DiCaprio’s character, but also the general feeling of an uphill, gruesome, bloody battle. I would definitely say that The Revenant is a war movie in much the same way that Saving Private Ryan is. While set in a warzone, the story is about something different, something more profound. This movie will go down as a classic in that genre of war movies. It was refreshing to watch an action/war movie that tried to be a bit different from the boring, samey, sentimental one that it easily could have been.
A lot of people are saying that DiCaprio will finally get the Oscar that he deserves for this film. I didn’t realise how good his acting is until quite late in the movie. There is a particular scene where he has to do something gross involving a horse where I felt a little bit sick. I realised that the reason I felt that way was because of his acting. He really made me feel just how frankly disgusting his conditions were.
All this being said, the movie does start to unravel a bit towards the end. DiCaprio gets injured so many times that by the end the immersion which works so well in the beginning starts to get interrupted. I started to feel like I was watching the story of the luckiest man alive. There is a scene when he gets chased by Native Americans on horseback – arrows whizzing past him – which didn’t fit with the movie’s brutal realism. Considering that so many people are slaughtered by the Natives in the beginning of the movie (many by arrows), for one man to be able to escape for a whole group of them on horseback was a bit far-fetched.
I also had a problem with the very end of the film. The fight scene between DiCaprio and Hardy emulated the fantastic fight scene between DiCaprio and the bear at the beginning of the movie. It was savage and really showed how much damage two men can do to each other – in the same way that the bear scene showed how much damage a wild animal can do to a human. However, it felt like the movie copped out a little bit and tried to shoehorn in a predictable, pretentious, sentimental ending. Following the advice of the Pawnee that DiCaprio befriends and choosing not to kill Hardy himself took the punch out of the ending and made it a bit underwhelming. The story works best when it is a simple revenge tale. The Natives showing up at the end – now reunited with the missing girl – was unnecessary. In fact, I don’t think we should have found out what happened with that storyline. The point, for me, was that the wilderness was a chaotic and dangerous place where people can just get lost and where closure is not always possible. Also, I liked the fact that the Natives were portrayed as an elusive force and putting in the story with the missing girl felt like it was there to please audiences. The fact that the Americans and the French were taking over their land should have been reason enough for the leader of the tribe to hold such resentment towards them. I think the ending would have worked better if DiCaprio had just got his revenge – killing Hardy like he killed the bear – and then dying himself, his mission complete. The movie was about what a man would go through to get his revenge. To then steal his revenge at the end of the film and make the story about whether or not (and how) you should take your revenge felt like it was there to appeal to a mass audience and get Oscar attention, and kind of undermined the rest of the story.
To conclude, then, The Revenant is certainly a very enjoyable experience. I am interested to see how it does at the Oscars – I’m confident it will get plenty of recognition (which it definitely deserves), but I do grow tired of seeing formulaic Oscar-winning storylines pushed in to great movies that don’t need them. If The Revenant had just stuck to what its guns, I think it would have been a much better film. That said, I’m very interested to see where Inarritu takes us next – and I hope it will be an even bolder movie.