When you have just won Oscars for writing, directing and producing a movie – as Alejandro González Iñárritu did with “Birdman” – you can make just about anything you choose on your next outing.
Iñárritu chose a 156-minute western with 30 minutes of plot, a gorgeous and well-acted series of grueling battles between man and man or man and nature that amount emotionally to nothing at all.
Here’s the entire plot of “The Revenant:” Hugh Glass, severely wounded by a bear attack, gets left for dead by fellow hunter John Fitzgerald and struggles back to civilization to take revenge. The movie is so generic that we don’t know its time (1820s) or location (South Dakota, as per the real story of Hugh Glass, whose reported life this film does not much resemble).
The script by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith (“based partly on the novel by Michael Punke”) dabbles in the racism of the time, as fellow fur merchants mock Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) for marrying a native American and traveling with their “half-breed” child. Apart from the relationship between the father and this dull son, there’s not a bit of characterization: none for Glass, none for mean-spirited Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, wasted here and struggling with his accent), none for the well-intentioned leader of the hunters (Domhnall Gleeson).
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Iñárritu’s self-indulgence keeps the movie going an hour longer than necessary. He never tires of shots of a slate-gray sky, white carpets of snow, views from below of the tops of towering pines. (To be fair, nobody could shoot them better than Emmanuel Lubezki, who won back-to-back cinematography Oscars for “Gravity” and “Birdman.”)
The bear can’t attack Glass just once. It has to stomp him thoroughly, come back to savage him again after he shoots at it, then lumber over a third time to claw and crush him. Glass crawls and staggers and stumbles on and on after that, giving Iñárritu many opportunities for close-ups of his wild eyes, scarred body and filthy beard.
DiCaprio’s performance consists mostly of gasps, groans, grunts and growls, the kind of fine showy work Oscar voters like. No one, possibly excepting Nicolas Cage, could more convincingly gobble raw buffalo organs steaming in frigid air or crawl inside the cracked carcass of a dead horse to sleep away a winter’s night.
However good DiCaprio may be, everything else feels overblown. Even the impressive-sounding title simply means “a person who returns,” though it can refer particularly to someone who comes back as a ghost. Mountains of time, money and attention have been lavished on this story, yet it stubbornly remains a molehill.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Length: 156 minutes
Rating: R (strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity)
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