"The Revenant": Leo's amazing -- but is this revenge western more than a live-action Roadrunner cartoon?

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s "Birdman" follow-up is a dazzling, overwrought saga of carnage and chaos in 1820s America

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 22, 2015 11:58PM (EST)

 Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant" (Twentieth Century Fox)
Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant" (Twentieth Century Fox)

No: Leonardo DiCaprio is not raped by a bear in “The Revenant,” although the fact that such an idiotic meme emerged, and was considered halfway conceivable by at least a few actual humans, tells you something about Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s operatic, ultraviolent revenge western. DiCaprio spends the entire movie escaping one near-death situation after the other, fleeing from (and/or pursuing) wild animals, natural phenomena, vengeful Native American warriors, French soldiers and a mumbling redneck villain played by Tom Hardy. Once I had got hold of the idea that this was the most elaborate Roadrunner cartoon of all time, I couldn’t get rid of it. (Hardy’s shipment from the Acme Dynamite Corp. must have gotten stuck in the snow somewhere.)

“The Revenant” is the big, Oscar-flavored follow-up to Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning “Birdman,” and like that film it was shot by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, a cinematographer whose impact on 21st-century film has been almost immeasurable. (Consider the résumé: “Y Tu Mamá También,” “The New World,” “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” “Gravity” and at least two more Terrence Malick films to come.) For a while, at least, this one feels like Iñárritu’s masterpiece, until that familiar too-muchness begins to take over. It features all the cinematic bravado and enormous narrative ambition that have made the Mexican director … well, whatever it is that he is. A flawed genius? A guy who bakes spectacular cakes but always forgets some crucial ingredient? Or maybe just a talented filmmaker who needs to get over trying to be Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Boccaccio in every second of every movie.

In one of those strange coincidences that starts to make you believe that there is a God and that his/her sense of humor is refreshingly straightforward, “The Revenant” is one of two ultraviolent revenge westerns being released on Christmas Day. (At 156 minutes, this one is the shorter of the two – by half an hour!) Because nothing quite goes along with honey-glazed ham and a crackling Yule log like watching someone get scalped alive or have his nuts shot off, by way of a reminder that our entire civilization was founded on ruthless carnage. While “The Revenant” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” are different stories told in extremely different modes – one a swashbuckling outdoor adventure, the other a claustrophobic indoor mystery – they’re both set in the Mountain West during the 19th century, outside the established borders of the United States, and both preach roughly the same dire text on American history.

Mind you, the 19th century in the American West covers a whole lot of territory. “The Revenant” is set half a century before Tarantino’s film, during the chaotic Western expansion of the 1820s, when hunters, trappers and the ragtag troops of the brand new United States Army began to explore the virtually unknown regions west of the Missouri River. One of the film’s themes or subjects, I would say – as in any Iñárritu movie, you could identify dozens of them – is the idea that our continent’s history had not yet been written, and things didn’t have to end up as they did.

DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is a white frontiersman and wilderness guide who has lived among Native Americans for years and can understand several Native languages. (The realism on that front is unusual and commendable: We hear Pawnee, Arikara and Lakota spoken in the film, reflecting the fact that numerous different groups speaking mutually incomprehensible languages came into collision with each other, as well as with the Americans and the French, during that period of intense cultural disruption.) His late wife was a Native woman who died in a village massacre that we experience in a series of overly mystical Iñárritu flashbacks, and that was apparently carried out by white troops. Hugh is now guiding a band of military beaver trappers alongside his teenage son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a “half-breed” viewed with near-universal distrust.

In the real history of the American West there were numerous men like Hugh Glass, who sought peaceful coexistence with Native Americans, in the first instance as a matter of survival and commercial advantage, and who came to understand and embrace Native culture to some degree. (The screenplay by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith is “based in part” on Michael Punke’s novel, which in turn was inspired by a historical episode.) But as someone may previously have observed, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Hugh represents the road not taken of peaceful cultural fusion, and Capt. Andrew Henry, the military officer in charge of his expedition (played by Domhnall Gleeson, who has had one hell of a year between this movie, “Ex Machina,” “Brooklyn” and “The Force Awakens”) is presented as a decent and honorable man facing terrible circumstances. John Fitzgerald, Hardy’s character, stands as the moral nemesis to both Henry and Glass, an overtly racist mercenary whose only interest is No. 1. But one of the cleverest subthemes of “The Revenant” is the suggestion that Fitzgerald may be the most honest and clear-headed of these guys. Once you accept his view of the world – Western expansion is a huge wealth-grab, driven by the wealthy and powerful; conflict between whites and Natives is inevitable – then everything he does is driven by logic rather than cruelty.

Very minor spoiler coming: That includes Fitz’s decision to abandon Glass in the wilderness after the latter has been critically wounded in that non-sexual ursine episode, even though he has been ordered to stay with the injured man (and promised a considerable payday for doing so). So there’s a historical irony at work as Glass literally claws his way across the frozen wastelands of what will one day be called Montana or Wyoming, sleeping naked inside deer carcasses and outwitting drunken Frenchmen and begging scraps from doomed Pawnee wanderers and dodging an enraged Arikara chief whose daughter has been kidnapped by whites and isn’t much interested in enlightened cultural dialogue. As Fitz actually tells Glass late in the film, the blood vengeance he seeks is thoroughly pointless, and arguably directed at the wrong target.

It’s a monumental performance by DiCaprio, even if he is playing a filthy, hirsute Frankenstein-monster version of the Roadrunner, with roughly the same amount of dialogue. If he wins his Oscar at last, I certainly have no objection. Gleeson and Hardy are also tremendous, and Lubezki’s breathtaking long-take action scenes exemplify the positive effects of digital photography in mainstream cinema. (I remain unsure about “Gravity,” on the other hand.) But as nearly often happens in Iñárritu’s films, these elements operate at cross purposes and the point of the whole thing – the reason this movie was made, and the reason we’re watching it – gets drowned beneath a series of memorable but disconnected images and moments.

Furthermore, at least once in my life I would like to see a western that strives for complex portrayals of Native Americans without defaulting to a phony-baloney spiritual vision-quest toward the end of the second act, in which insects and amphibians speak, the dead return, beautiful maidens sit alone in a field of waving grass and the hero wakes at last, his fever broken. It’s a sure sign that a filmmaker thought he had something to say but has lost track of it – we can stick with the masculine pronoun for this one – and that if he’s not actually Terrence Malick making a Terrence Malick movie, he’s in grave peril of becoming Kevin Costner making “Dances With Wolves.”

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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