If Terrence Malick were to run around like a maniac and bark orders at his film crew like “MAN UP!” (he’d scream this, obviously) and “Don’t be a pansy!” while grabbing his genitals and shaking them around as a symbol of his unbridled masculinity, he’d probably end up with something like The Revenant. Shooting in actual snow in actual wilderness, he’d probably throw a line in there about “freezing your balls off!” just to set the mood. Yes, the Malick influence is strong (and then crudely distorted) in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s brutal revenge western about grimy, slimy fur traders in 19th century Montana.
There are supremely sumptuous shots of nature, defined by running water and trees as glimpsed from below. There are whispers in voiceover, mysterious flashbacks straining for lyricism, and contemplative spiritual ponderings. There’s a sense of connection in the past that has now led to disconnect in the present. And of course, there’s Emmanuel Lubezki. The already-legendary cinematographer who has shot Malick’s last four features and previously collaborated with Iñárritu on last year’s Birdman is back with a towering feat of technical daring, a mix of natural light and cleverly employed CGI that deeply immerses us in the experience of everything from riding a horse off a cliff to having arrows fired at you by attacking forces.
The opening action sequence is a wild slice of bravura filmmaking that favours long, complex takes in its attempt to depict the chaotic horror of a sudden battle between the American fur traders and a group of First Nations people roaring into camp on horseback. It’s nasty, gory stuff, emboldened by a frightening sense of immediacy. A person will kill and be killed and the camera will take off with their killer all without a single visible cut. There's an eerie elegance that powers the violence, pumped up to be sensationally cinematic.
Afterwards, the plot begins to splinter, giving us multiple threads to attend to, but treating nearly all as expositional filler. There's something mechanical about the way Iñárritu returns to the First Nations group for a two-minute scene just to inform us that they're looking for the stolen daughter of their leader, information that justifies their attack on the camp and provides another level of personal stakes to the full spectrum of conflict.
It could be a nice touch, but Iñárritu treats the scene as a quick cutaway that simply states its purpose and moves on. For a movie that's so committed to the spaces between mere plot point pitstops, the secondary stories are given such brief allotments of time that they feel inorganic in their inclusion. Iñárritu is ever eager to revisit the plight of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), the experienced guide who finds himself undertaking quite an awesomely harrowing journey.
Iñárritu has always loved to pile on the conflict to the point that he’s practically burying his protagonists beneath the weight of the world. Here he finds plenty of opportunities for Glass to skirt around the edge of death and his own sanity. The strategy appears to involve cycling through the classic trio of narrative conflicts. So at first it’s a glimpse of Glass vs. man, represented by Tom Hardy’s laughably evil Fitzgerald, followed by Glass vs. nature when he runs afoul of a grizzly bear wandering the woods with its young. The bear shreds Glass’s flesh and stomps all over him in a particularly memorable sequence that defines the movie’s constant aim for technical prowess and excess.
When a mangled Glass is later left for dead, he literally crawls out of his grave and embarks on an epic mission to tell nature to suck it. He battles the elements like a pro, but comes to respect nature and the pixelated beauty of all its many CGI animals. He has some Glass vs. himself action in his head, wrestling with his memories and possibly nearing delirium as he clings to life in the frigid cold. Then, more battling nature until we reach the inevitable Glass vs. Fitzgerald showdown. Iñárritu plus a 155-minute running time leaves a lot of room for conflict.
It also affords the director plenty of opportunities to observe the crossroads of harsh winter conditions and manly survival skills. Glass can barely move in the frigid cold at first, so broken is his body, but before long, he tears into a raw fish he’s caught and then it’s off to the races. Well, in a shuffling, limping manner, which still marks an impressive transformation. At one point, our hero encounters another lost, lonely soul, who is busy chowing down on the guts of a buffalo that was felled by wolves. Glass gets tossed a chunk and the two men, surrounded by fire, lock stares and make clear their manliness to each other by munching on the raw stuff in unison.
Glass’s survival occupies much of the running time, but Iñárritu is sure to return to Fitzgerald on occasion so that he can build up our hatred for the villain. Fitzgerald is always intense (obviously, since he’s played by Hardy) and always looking for a new angle to express his evilness. When Glass is found clinging to life after the bear attack, Fitzgerald practically drools while suggesting that the men put the mangled guide out of his misery and when Fitzgerald volunteers to watch over Glass while the rest of the crew look for safe passage, the first thing the villain does once left alone is put all his muscles to work digging a grave. You know, just in case.
On a base level, Iñárritu’s strategy works. How could it not? Glass is a frothing DiCaprio, still charismatic and lovable behind the huge beard and exasperated grunts, surviving the most epic elemental beatdown imaginable, whereas Fitzgerald is only ever a huge jerk whose solution to every problem is just to kill someone. But the lack of subtlety and the rushing river of forced emotions cheapens the drama that Iñárritu intends to hit us with. It all feels a bit goofy and ridiculous because every progression of the plot and the character arcs is announced so loudly that the experience adopts an air of artificiality.
Borrowing further pages from the book of Malick, Iñárritu also dabbles in religious discussion and imagery as viewed through the veil of nature, but his commentary on this theme is shallow at best. It basically boils down to the explanation that good people respect God, while nasty assholes insult Him. Fitzgerald tells a story about a guy he once knew who claims he saw God in a squirrel that he then shot and killed. Huh. Okay then. Hardy concludes his telling of the story by going bug-eyed, capturing the surreality of Iñárritu’s brand of manly madness. But Glass imagines an emotional reunion within the ruins of a church and is shown to be growing closer to God as his thirst for revenge meets its end.
This all seems a rather pitiful way of pondering religion in the midst of hellish circumstances. No other modern filmmaker uses cinema to consider faith and our relationship with God the way that Malick does. That doesn’t automatically mean he’s the best at it, but he has a unique manner of voicing his attempts to wrestle with the very concept of our place in the universe and the possibilities of afterlife and the need for compassion. Iñárritu appears to be making a similar sort of attempt, pondering concepts and iconography instead of nailing down a concrete idea, but he falls short while he strains for profundity because he ultimately seems to kind of hate petty humans. To put it bluntly and perhaps hyperbolically, Malick’s a saint; Iñárritu’s a sadist.
The Revenant conjures all these thoughts and more. For all its strange flaws, it still packs a punch, however comically. The imagery is at times overwhelming in its scope and DiCaprio certainly sells incredible discomfort convincingly. This is a snarling beast of a movie, a technical tour de force, but it's also so cluelessly serious about its meandering manliness that it comes off as more silly than sincere. This is meat-and-potatoes Malick, macho Malick, Malick misunderstood. Or it's just Iñárritu, pushing himself to the very brink of his abilities, an artist drunk on his own testosterone. It's both fascinating that his astonishing ambitions drove him to this place and worrisome that the Malick influence has been so vulgarly perverted. Not every filmmaking poet has to have grace, of course, but in this case, it beats thumping your chest and trying brazenly to out-man the master.