Silver Screen: The Revenant **
The harsh elements of the American frontier imperil a group of pioneering souls— but it’s their fellow Americans who prove most dangerous.
That’s the setup for two of awards season’s most-anticipated films, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Each film is set in the Dakota Territory, and each frames the terror and splendor of nature in gorgeous panoramas. But the two films are not made equally and, of course, Hollywood has anointed the wrong one.
The Revenant is a significantly reworked adaptation of a fictionalized version of a true story. Michael Punke’s novel mostly adheres to the facts of frontiersman Hugh Glass’s staggering fight for survival. Glass was attacked by a bear during a hunting expedition in in the early 1820s, then left for dead by the two men assigned to remain with him to tend to his wounds. Glass then began a harrowing solo journey that included setting his own broken bones, having a bear hide stitched to his lacerated back by friendly Native Americans, finding creative medical applications for maggots, and eating all manner of gross stuff. After literally crawling his way back to civilization, he began to scheme for revenge on the men who left him to die.
Sounds like terrific fodder for a movie. And it is. Vanishing Point director Richard Sarafian coopted the story for 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, starring Richard Harris as the Glass stand-in.
Iñárritu mustn’t have much faith in that source material, though, because he heaps another extraordinary burden on Glass: an unwieldy load of cinematic clichés. Now Glass, here played with startling intensity by Leonardo DiCaprio, has a half-Indian son, the lone survivor after soldiers killed his entire encampment, including Glass’s Native wife.
Sadist/aesthete Iñárritu gives the fictional Glass a son just to take him away. Being mauled by a bear, abandoned by your friends, and literally crawling two-hundred miles back to life isn’t enough hardship for the director of exquisitely rendered sufferings like Twenty-one Grams, Biutiful, and Babel. He’s a maker of handsome misery parades that consistently confuse bleakness for profundity.
So Iñárritu’s Glass can’t just suffer, he has to have all the suffering, which includes watching the only person he loves murdered before his eyes.
The preposterous alteration to the source material warps Glass’s survivalist determination into the hoariest of revenge plots, every bit as thoughtless and formulaic as your given Liam Neeson action sequel. It muddies what could have been a far more nuanced take on retribution.
The architect of Glass’s abandonment, John Fitzgerald, potentially has a sympathetic side to his story— one eradicated by the film’s Manichean certitude. As played by Tom Hardy, Fitzgerald is pure villainy, a cowardly, racist bully who casually resorts to child murder. He’s not much of a character, just another card in a deck stacked against Glass, because Iñárritu seems uncomfortable with any statement that isn’t overstatement.
A film needn’t adhere to its source material to be great, of course— or even adhere to the truth— but it’s noteworthy that every alteration to the story by Iñárritu and his cowriter Mark Smith makes it worse, simpler, less subtle.
What a shame, too, because The Revenant features some of the most gorgeous natural imagery ever put on film. Iñárritu insisted on filming in the wilds of Alberta, Canada to recreate the untouched look of the American frontier. These Herculean efforts pay off in full, as he’s able to convey darkly transcendentalist notions through silent shots of nature at its most fragile and forbidding. The roar of frigid water down a rocky stream, icicles like Tiffany crystal, the majestic whisper of a faraway avalanche reshaping a faraway mountainscape— a forty-five-minute highlight reel from The Revenant would be incredible.
Iñárritu almost made the greatest survivalist movie of all time, but instead he cloaks himself in pretension as surely as DiCaprio wraps himself in the comforting warmth of a bearskin hide.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.