As you may have heard, The Revenant – given its bloody violence, grisly survival tactics, and almost complete lack of levity – is strong medicine. It also inspires the same reaction that strong medicine does; you’re glad it exists, but ugh, the taste. There are images and battle sequences in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s neo-Western that I didn’t think movies were even capable of, let alone capable of making transcendently beautiful and utterly horrifying in equal measure. Yet all that beauty and horror turn out to be in the service of a dispiritingly one-note, unduly protracted revenge saga that, miraculous visuals aside, could have easily starred Charles Bronson in his mid-1970s heyday. It’s Death Wish in fur coats – or, more accurately, The Passion of the Christ if Jesus survived his crucifixion and was determined to get even with that bastard who hammered the nails.
There’s actually a fair amount of plot, or at least plot strands, floating around in Iñárritu’s and co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith’s script inspired by Michael Punke’s novel (inspired, in turn, by actual events). During a fur-trapping expedition in 1823, mountaineer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is severely mauled by a bear, and, when left in charge of the man’s voiceless and barely ambulatory body, trapping partner John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) decides to end his life. This doesn’t go over well with Glass’ half-Pawnee son (Grace Dove), whose attempts to defy the euthanasia lead to Fitzgerald murdering him mere feet from Glass, who can only respond with muffled shrieks and a penetrating stare. Fitzgerald subsequently drags Glass to an empty grave, tosses dirt on him, and leaves him for dead, departing with a newbie (Will Poulter) unaware of the offenses. But this is one Glass that won’t be shattered. He hauls himself out of the grave, tenderly caresses the body of his dead child, and is eventually crawling, then walking, then riding toward the trappers’ outpost with the intent of doing to Fitzgerald what he did to Glass’ son. This time, you see, It’s Personal.
But the narrative isn’t what any of us are at the movie for, is it? Bring on that bear! Bring on DiCaprio eating raw bison liver! Bring on that gasp-inducing shot from the trailer in which DiCaprio and his horse ride full-speed off the edge of a cliff! In a review I read somewhere, The Revenant was described as “survival porn,” and that’s exactly what it is – Iñárritu, and especially DiCaprio, have done such a sensational job of selling this movie as The Hardship To End All Hardships that we almost helplessly enter the film less interested in the work as a whole than in the inevitable money shots. And in those regards, The Revenant certainly delivers.
I bow to no one in my respect for that aforementioned cliff dive, which is so seamlessly edited that I can’t fathom how no stuntman or animal was killed in the process. The movie’s opening onslaught on the trappers by a cadre of Native Americans may be Iñárritu’s attempt to stage his very own Omaha Beach opener from Saving Private Ryan, but the attempt is an absolute success. With cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s cameras breezing alongside the horsebacked and foot soldiers, the scene is a nightmarish cascade of arrows and gunfire rendered so spectacularly that it easily sets a new genre standard; we’re placed right inside the confused, frantic minds of those besieged. (Kevin Costner must be silently weeping that the quarter century since Dances with Wolves has led to this.)
As for that grizzly attack (both grizzly attacks, actually, as the marauding starts anew after Glass shoots the creature in the neck), I’ll admit I was a bit pulled out of Iñárritu’s movie based on the Uncanny Valley nature of the furry beast, just as I was when I saw the distractingly CGI representations of her cubs, the deer, the wild pigs, and the wolves that massacre a buffalo. None of that much bothered me, though; I guess if computer animation can’t (yet) replicate human life with complete believability, there’s no reason it should be able to do so with animal life. And Iñárritu’s bear fight is indeed a thrilling piece of cinema. Although the quiet tension leading up to the encounter is more stomach-tightening than the encounter itself, the sight of Mama Bear whipping Glass to and fro like a rag doll is gut-wrenching in the most enjoyable way, and the sequence is filled with gorgeously frightening grace notes: the hard press of face against mud as the bear steps on Glass’ head; the grizzly, viewed so damned close to us, panting and snorting, its breath fogging the camera lens. So, as in most porn, The Revenant’s money shots are great. It’s the filler I have a problem with.
Much of that problem lies with Iñárritu, whose newfound carte blanche has allowed him to inflate a simple, perfectly workable vengeance fantasy into more than two-and-a-half hours rife with magical realism, Native American visions (at least four of them) straight out of Oliver Stone’s The Doors, and endless scenes of Glass suffering, suffering, then crawling, crawling, then trudging, trudging, in what feels like real time. But I wouldn’t begrudge Iñárritu his many excesses if Glass – by which I specifically mean Leonardo DiCaprio – wasn’t at the heart of all that excess. Unfortunately, though, he is, and it’s at this point that I’m going to court vitriol by saying that DiCaprio gives, all things considered, a phenomenally fraudulent performance in The Revenant. You buy his characterization when a bear is standing on his head. The rest of the time, it’s as if DiCaprio is standing on your head, and refusing to lighten his step until either you concede that his is a portrayal for the ages or the Academy finally gives him that Oscar.
I’ve frequently admired his work, even though – like perhaps many of my generation – I miss the ease of his ’90s presence in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, This Boy’s Life, and Marvin’s Room. (Titanic was when he started to become irritatingly mannered.) Recently, I especially enjoyed DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby and Shutter Island, and while I hated the movie, his Quaalude-motivated trek to the car in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street may be the finest piece of physical comedy in American movies this decade. (DiCaprio is always better when he’s allowed to be funny.) But the actor is at his best, his most natural, when his roles allow him to be superficial or deluded or intentionally untrustworthy, and sadly Iñárritu’s latest doesn’t play to any of DiCaprio’s performance strengths – and actually has the unintended side effect of showing off his most alarming deficiencies. DiCaprio doesn’t enter the skin of others, notwithstanding the Revenant horse he opts to sleep in. He comments on his roles, placing a clear divide between himself and the characters he’s playing, so there’s never any sense that, say, DiCaprio is that adulterous asshole from Revolutionary Road, or that bigoted Southern dandy from Django Unchained. He makes the artifice unmistakably evident. (“Wow! Look at Leo playing an adulterous asshole and a bigoted Southern dandy!”). Consequently, when playing “real,” DiCaprio comes off as nothing but forced, and a little embarrassing.
Heaven knows Iñárritu doesn’t do him any favors with his insistence on documenting every nanosecond of Glass’ emotional and physical pain. But DiCaprio’s teeth-grinding, saliva-spewing, guttural shrieks of torment have no variety and, because the character is written to be such a saintly blank, no human interest; all we can do is stare at the actor’s masochistic suffering and give him applause and trophies for it. (“Look at poor Leo cauterizing his slashed throat!” “Look at poor Leo eating that fish straight from the water even though there’s a fire 10 feet away on which he could cook the thing!”) It’s bad enough when Glass speaks, and every nugget out of DiCaprio’s mouth – especially his “I ain’t afraid to die anymore ... I done it already” soliloquy – comes with “For Your Consideration” all but emblazoned on the screen. But DiCaprio is somehow even more phony when he’s silent. When he consumes that fish, his eyes bulge with the mad gleam of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera; when he hears trouble a-brewin’, his eyes dart back and forth like a figure in an 1890s melodramer. Maybe DiCaprio’s playing of Glass – with his awkward emotional telegraphing and inability to communicate more than one feeling at any given moment – is the only way this largely silent character could be played. I’m betting, though, that co-star Tom Hardy could’ve found another.
At some point, I may find myself tired of talking about Hardy’s imperious, chameleonic talents. That time is not now, because it’s his presence that hints at the more complex, satisfying movie that this one could have been. As usual with Hardy, and as certified with his brilliant portrayal(s) of twins in 2015’s underwhelming gangster drama Legend, his performance here requires active listening and concentration, and after DiCaprio opened The Revenant speaking in a subtitled Native American tongue, I’d have been happy for the subtitles to also continue through many of Hardy’s early proclamations. (I think his Fitzgerald is a native Texan ... and one, apparently, also born with marbles in his mouth.) But Hardy is the anti-DiCaprio. With his one-idea-at-a-time obviousness, DiCaprio never suggests that there are other levels to his thought process. Hardy makes it clear that Fitzgerald is always thinking roughly 10 things at a time.
Hardy’s Fitzgerald is marvelous when given a juicy, show-stopping speech, as when he talks about how his father once saw God in the form of a squirrel, and decided to eat Him anyway. He’s even better when he realizes that the buried Glass may, in fact, not be dead, and the rush of feeling in Fitzgerald’s eyes shows a man immediately, cunningly, instinctively figuring out the smartest and most personally beneficial next move. Through the whole of its length, The Revenant gives you little reason to smile; you shudder even when Glass and a helpful Pawnee enjoy a moment of respite catching snowflakes on their tongues, knowing that Iñárritu surely has some terrible fate in store for that friendly Native American. But I smiled almost every time Tom Hardy was on-screen. His Fitzgerald is scary, unpredictable, and even empathetic – certainly a more believably human creation than the abused stick figure craving his death. (He is, at least, until the script requires Fitzgerald to anachronistically denigrate Glass’ son, to Glass’ face, as “some girly little bitch,” causing the inevitable mano a mano slugfest. It’s like we’re suddenly in a Marvel movie, where superpowers are ignored in favor of characters insanely choosing to instead punch the crap out of each other.)
Vexing though the accomplishment is, there are plenty of reasons to see The Revenant, including the topnotch support offered by Domhnall Gleeson, topping off a startlingly productive film year that also found him terrific in Ex Machina, Brooklyn, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Nearly all the ones to not see it, though, involve its star, and his director’s and script’s staunch refusal to let us forget that he’s the star. When the angrily insistent score clues us in that Glass’ payback is definitely in the offing, we’re meant, I think, to forget about the film’s potential tonal complexities in favor of merely cheering on this vaguely defined protagonist whom we’re never meant to stop rooting for. At one point, when Glass is at his most desperate, he ignores his easy chance to escape perilous circumstances, and instead chooses to pummel a white guy who’s in the midst of raping a Native American woman, thereby preserving Glass’ – and DiCaprio’s – martyrdom, chivalry, and readiness to kick major ass. This isn’t a hardscrabble 19th Century figure we’re watching. This is Bronson. Or Batman. Take your pick.
It was probably unfair of me to directly follow my screening of The Revenant with the low-budget scare flick The Forest. And by that, I mean it was probably unfair to The Revenant, because Iñárritu’s trek to his film’s easily predicted conclusion takes roughly 156 minutes, while The Forest director Jason Zada gets us to an edgier, far more surprising place in a swift 95. Only a fool would argue that The Forest is a “better” movie than The Revenant. But this would hardly be the first time I’ve been considered a fool: The Forest is a better movie than The Revenant – less strenuous, less self-conscious, less desperate to impress, and ultimately, a hell of a lot more fun. They may be an apple and an orange, but as presented, I found the Forest apple tastier.
Like The Revenant, The Forest finds its lead searching for someone amidst an unfamiliar wilderness. In this film’s case, it’s Sara Price (Natalie Dormer), who travels from America to Japan to find her identical-twin sister who has gone missing, and is presumed dead, somewhere within the Aokigahara Forest – the legendary “Suicide Forest” – at the base of Mt. Fuji. Upon arriving, Sara is warned not to enter the woods alone and not stay after dark, and while adhering to the first suggestion (bringing along Taylor Kinney’s journalist Aiden and Yukiyoshi Ozawa’s guide Michi), she promptly ignores the second, even though creepy sources warn her that the forest will cause hallucinations and madness. You can guess what happens next. But you also can’t. Because I, for one, didn’t guess that there’d be so much psychological complexity, or that a director would finally explore the horror-movie possibilities of a ViewMaster, or that Zada and his trio of writers would make our heroine so untrustworthy from the get-go. (In a shrewd touch not long into the film, Sara tells Aiden about the night her parents died, and the accompanying flashback shows that her story is a lie.) The Forest isn’t thrilling or novel enough to be truly memorable, and not to give away the ending, but must every modern supernatural thriller wrap up with a shrieking ghost rushing the camera? Still, it’s a fun, zippy ride if you just want to enjoy some Blair Witch-y creep-outs, and Dormer – Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones – is awfully good. It’s frankly a huge relief to see the traditional Woman in Peril played by someone with such natural gravitas and style, and even when events here lean toward the über-silly, Dormer faces the horrors – even the script-based ones – with steely verve. I’d imagine that after you’ve married Joffrey Baratheon, everything else is a cake walk.