With Oscar season upon us the main contenders are all in the public domain. The buzz this year, is The Revenant will finally land Leonardo Di Caprio his long deserved Oscar, where Wolf Of Wall Street, The Aviator and others have failed. Based on the true story of Hugh Glass, the film is western is style, yet shares a lot of DNA with Gladiator.
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the film begins with a brutal battle between Di Caprio and the band of fur traders he is guiding and a roving Native American tribe. The battle is brutal and like the beginning of Gladiator sets the tone for the film. Arrows whip through a wintry forest, striking down one trader after another as we are introduced to the main characters in a time of peril. Tom Hardy plays Fitzgerald and Domhall Gleeson continues his busy year by playing the leader of the expedition Captain Andrew Henry and Will Poulter plays a younger member called Jim Bridger. Glass is the scout of the group along with his native american son. From early on this causes friction with Fitzgerald, who survived an attack and attempted scalping.
Hardy plays Fitzgerald with a typical, brooding menace but unfortunately his portrayal suffers from a case of the Bane dialogue. It can be very difficult to make out what he is saying and in the early film this can be frustrating. His intonation and portrayal make it easy to understand what is going on, however lovers of dialogue will be disappointed. Despite the high-octane and thrilling start the film sets into a necessary malaise after the much publicised bear attack on Glass. Having ditched the boats to avoid the tribe Henry’s expedition begins the long journey back through the mountains. While stopped Glass is hunting when he disturbs a bear in the woods.
The CGI bear attack on Di Caprio is very much like a rape scene in a film. Glass is manhandled and abused by the bear as it severely wounds him. Watching this you feel very uncomfortable as it goes on for longer than you would think. For one you are enthralled by the excellent acting and struggle of Glass as he survives time and time again and tries to fight back. Every time you think the bear has left him alone it comes back for more. In the end the bear is dead but Glass is left horribly scarred and mortally wounded. Already being on the run from the tribe, the central conceit of the film is now set up as Fitzgerald wants to leave Glass for dead, while Henry orders he be carried with them. As the terrain gets impossible with a stretcher a decision needs to be made. Bridger and Fitzgerald remain with Glass and his son until he dies or recovers, with the promise of a greater share of the fur profit when they return. Bridger is young and easily led and despite his friendship with Glass’ son, Fitzgerald begins to scheme. After a few days he waits until he is alone with the prone Glass and says unless he dies he will kill his son and bury them both. Unable to speak Glass consents by blinking and Fitzgerald begins to suffocate him. Glass’ son interrupts and is murdered by Fitgerald (something completely fictitious to the film) leaving Glass and Fitzgerald when Bridger returns. Fitzgerald convinces him to leave Glass for dead in a shallow grave and hey set off to return to the main group.
It is here that the film loses its way slightly. Di Caprio puts on an acting masterclass as he struggles with the tragic loss of his film and the debilitating injuries from the bear. Without speaking he struggles to regain mobility and keep himself alive against all the elements. While this is compelling the constant visions of his dead wife and now dead son in a kind of spirit world harken back to the cornfield sections of Gladiator. While this worked in Gladiator, here I find it an unnecessary and jarring distraction from what is at heart a chase and revenge tale. Everytime the action or peril is built up, we seem to get another of these scenes, which makes the film lose all momentum. When you add in a few scenes with the tribe and a group of French fur traders, we have too many distractions from the human story we are meant to care about.
After all the trials and tribulations. Glass finally makes his way to the fort and rejoins the group causing Fitzgerald to flee with the money. Henry and Glass set off to hunt him down and we are set up for a thrilling climax or so we hope. In reality the film ends without giving the audience the resolution they desire. There is a climactic and brutal battle between Glass and Fitzgerald but rather than ending with a decisive victor we have another kickback to the spiritual ending. After sitting through nearly two hours of pain, perfectly portrayed by Di Caprio, we deserve a better ending than we get. Considering how the film played fast and loose with the facts of the true story, a more decisive and fulfilling ending was completely possible.
In fact after watching the film I came away slightly empty feeling. Here we had all the ingredients of a true classic. Cinematography, performance and setting were all excellent. Di Caprio played his part like Bear Grylls with a hangover. Snarling and spitting his way through many scenes until he was able to talk again. Hardy relished playing the villain and despite issues with his audio, came across as genuinely evil. Domhall Gleeson was barely used but when called upon fulfilled his role as did Poulter. Where it all fell down was in length and running time. Watching this it felt like a special edition, that included everything that a normal director would have left on the cutting room floor. The overbloated and slow middle section, the unnecessary trips to a spirit world, the French interaction with the Native Americans and much more could have been removed and the time spent better on the early interactions of the main group and a more well-structured ending sequence. For me this was very much a missed opportunity and will only be remembered as the film that got Leo his Oscar.