My mini-review of The Revenant: it left me cold.
To start, it left me literally cold. It was a frigid day in Manhattan when I walked into the theater to see it. I’d walked a ways to get there. It was only a long walk by modern urban standards, mind you, but I was cold when I arrived. The theater’s heat was not working well and I found myself chilled throughout the film.
Believe me, this is not a film you want to see when you are shivering. The Revenant has its man-versus-man dramatic elements in sporadic abundance but the man-versus-the-elements element was ever present. Death can come suddenly and violently in the film from an unexpected arrow to the head or from a large bear sneaking up behind you. But those things are over and done. By contrast, the cold is with you at the beginning of the film and stays with you unremittingly to the last frame — beyond the last frame in fact. The cold in this movie is on continual display visually, too, with a constant stream of images — bleak snowscapes, frozen trees, frigid running water inviting immersion — banishing any notion of warmth, pretty much of any variety.
Well, there is one moment of warmth in the film involving DiCaprio and his trusted steed. I won’t spoil the fun for those who have not seen it but suffice to say for the Little Feat fans out there that Leo’s Cold Cold Cold is briefly suspended when it breaks into Tripe Face Boogie.
But the film left me somewhat cold in a metaphoric sense too. Twain had that wonderful line about Wagner’s music that it is better than it sounds. The reverse seemed to me to be the case here: The Revenant is just not as good as it looks, or as it presents itself to be. My son said he thought it was at least 15 minutes too long and would have benefited greatly from trimming. I agree — and then some. It could have even been shorter than that. But I expect the director was aiming high, for the Oscars, and to do that he needed to make a film that makes a statement, and how better to do that than by going past the two and one-half hour mark?
But what is the statement? Here I am not so sure. For the most part, it is a pretty simple revenge drama, albeit one in which the revenge is served very, very cold. But if that is the case — if revenge is what it is really and truly all about — then there are more economical ways of going about it. Indeed, I am personally much fonder of films that take a simple theme like revenge — since it is simple — and treat it in the unadorned fashion that the emotion calls for. Boorman’s Point Blank, for instance.
But that doesn’t get you an Oscar in this day and age, and you also need high end digital effects and production values. Kaboom and prestidigitation! The hand is quicker than the eye! And a hundred million or so later you completely forget that not much is really going on in a film like, say, Gravity.
OK, you say, but Iñárritu didn’t make a simple revenge drama. There is more going on. But what?
Yes, there is more going on relative to DiCaprio’s dead wife and his relationship with his son, which set up something of a more complex emotional framework. There’s the “keep breathing” trope, which comes across as weighty but seemed to me to be just a line in a movie. And there’s the interaction with Native Americans, which sets up something of a more complex historical and political context. But do these really add up to anything?
Cut to the ending. As DiCaprio relentlessly hunted down the Tom Hardy character, I sensed in my bones that he couldn’t really just kill the bad guy off — this was a movie with a message and there had to be a more nuanced ending. The film was obligated to not just end with revenge.
So we need to engineer nuance at the last minute, and quickly. Who rides to the rescue? In this case it is not the cavalry but the Indians. They get to dispatch the bad guy and allow DeCaprio a meaningful moment.
But a contrived moment nonetheless. Indeed, the quasi-mercy DiCaprio shows to Hardy at the end was prefigured pretty ham-handedly early in the film with a line about leaving revenge to the gods, where it was a pretty obvious “tell” if you were paying attention. DiCaprio even reminds the viewer by recapping the line from earlier in the film, in case you weren’t paying attention.
Movies can sometimes just tell a story, with no apparent point or moral. Sometimes they have a didactic purpose. I felt like Iñárritu was eliding between these two poles in too cute a way. For me at least this was the plot version of the Uncanny Valley. I am comfortable with a human and comfortable with a cartoon but I get uncomfortable when the two get too close. And I am comfortable with realism and comfortable with moralizing but could not get comfortable with the mix in this film.
Back around 1990 we had two films with a similar theme: Dances with Wolves and Black Robe. The former was an all-moralizing epic designed as Oscar bait. The latter was more modest but superior in every way. On the surface, The Revenant owes more to Black Robe. It takes place in the cold North not on the Great Plains, and in an earlier period. The Native Americans can be brutal and are not so explicitly noble. But under the surface there’s a lot more Dances With Wolves than there appears on the surface. The Revenant looks like Black Robe but it is the Oscar bait this year. The Native Americans may have been stripped of some of the ultra-romanticism of Costner’s film. But it’s still in there — to me at least a nagging reminder of the need for the correct gods to be honored in mainstream film.
It’s like the ending of the otherwise superior The Big Short: it’s not enough to show how the crash happened, we must in closing relate the crash to immigrant bashing and right-wing populism. I’d have preferred both The Big Short and The Revenant conclude without such sermonizing. It’s not really needed.