Cold. Beautiful. Brutal. Fierce. Intense. Stunning. Violent.
And that’s just Tom Hardy’s performance.
But seriously, The Revenant (recent winner of the Golden Globe for Best Picture/Drama) is a far-reaching work of art that is worth seeing while falling just short of greatness.
The film is what you might get when you mix The Searchers with Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Gravity, All is Lost, The Passion of the Christ, Gladiator and Old Boy. It’s a visually gorgeous epic on a grand scale, a tale of survival and revenge set against the forbidding but breathtaking mountains of Montana and South Dakota in the 1820s. In its scope and beauty, it recalls the epics of David Lean. The cinematography is both exquisite and technically impressive (sometimes too much so). The acting is top-notch, and not just from soon-to-be-Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio. Probably the most ambitious film of the year, it’s an instructive follow-up to last year’s Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (from the same director).
First, the good. See this on the big screen, as it has some of the most coldly beautiful images you’ve seen in years. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Oscars for Gravity and Birdman) may well pick up his third Academy Award in as many years for his work here. In an era of watching movies on one’s iPhone, this may be the year’s best advertisement for seeing films in movie theaters, where such magnificent and striking images belong.
With weaker actors, the landscapes may well have overwhelmed the characters. Fortunately, that’s not the case here. If awards were given for commitment or sacrifice, DiCaprio would have won them all this year for his work here. But he goes far beyond that with a performance that holds the film together almost wordlessly at times, and with a fierce drive of a character bent on staying alive and exacting his revenge. In terms of awards, it’s his year, but well deserved for this performance. Few actors could beat the weight of a film this size.
Equally as good is Tom Hardy as the [spoiler alert] villain. Hardy so inhabits his character and blends so well into the harshness of the landscape that it may seem all of a piece, thereby hiding his artistry. But he is as good if not better than DiCaprio, and brings balance and clarity to Hugh’s (DiCaprio) struggle. Hardy is a great talent, and we can only hope for a long career of such rich work.
Making yet another appearance in an award-winning or popular film this year is the apparently ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson, holding up his end of the film after solid performances just this year in Ex Machina, Brooklyn and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And while there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch, it’s good to see that Will Poulter (The Maze Runner and The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader) is making a successful transition to more adult, thoughtful films.
The downsides have to do with the plot and the weaknesses of the visual style. Criticisms have included a rather weak storyline, and that’s true. To go back to David Lean, his greatest epics balanced a grand visual style with a story that resonated with “big ideas” such as war, brotherhood, historical moments, great loves, nation-building, etc. Here we have a rather thin tale of a man trying to survive, but driven largely to stay alive by revenge. Yet that is qualified and then [spoiler alert] undone by what seems a half-hearted commitment to a “Revenge is mine, says the Lord” idea.
That idea is first expressed by a passing Native American in a kind of almost throwaway line, and then is repeated with little dramatic import at the end. If this climactic thought and action were going to be something important in the plot, it needed to be more of a struggle than it appeared, and it could have added the kind of “will he or won’t he” frisson that ramped up tension in The Searchers when we wondered not only if John Wayne’s character would find his niece, but what he would when he found her. Instead, the lack of commitment to the though—the very thought that changes the climax!—undermines an already thin story.
More than that, the struggle for revenge ends with the kind of hand-to-hand combat we tend to find in second-rate action films. I suppose it’s more dramatic to have those intent on killing one another do some personal space fighting, but it comes off as more of a cliché than a climax.
Finally, the technically accomplished cinematography repeats some of the elements we found in last year’s Birdman, but to lesser effect. That film appeared to be comprised of one long take. While that aspect of Birdman was dazzling, what kept it rooted in humanity were the great expressive characters (and the talented actors playing them) and the high personal stakes of the central story—and many of the subplots as well. The style meshed perfectly with the content, and they fed each other.
Here the long takes tend to distract in the way that the bravura beach sequence in Atonement tended to. Impressive, yes, but it can take one out of the film. Same here with some sequences, especially with the attack scenes. Instead of focusing on the drama or narrative consequences of the actions, these scenes tend to come across as a bit choreographed and self-conscious. It reminded me of the visual style used by Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life, a swooping, angled approach to the film’s material that completely worked in that film, and then completely didn’t work when it was employed in his next film, To the Wonder. What was exhilarating and meaningful in Birdman was exhilarating and distracting here in The Revenant.
The Tree of Life, which failed in part because of dinosaurs and Sean Penn, reached high and succeeded greatly, even if it didn’t quite accomplish all its high goals. The Revenant is like that—full of ambition, drive, creativity, and brutal force—and while not quite fulfilling its potential, is the great epic of the year.