Sometimes a film in its various parts is greater than the entirety of the final product. That’s the unfortunate case with The Revenant, which has a compelling story based on true events, a talented cast and crew, and the benefit of being shot in nature. On top of that, director Alejandro González Iñárritu led the production through an overrun budget and late schedule due to inclement weather and the decisions to use only natural light in shooting the film, and shoot the film’s scenes in chronological order. Stories from the cast suggest the effort in putting together the film was about as traumatic as what the characters go through during the film. But in conveying the journey of its characters, The Revenant often drags through scene after disconnected scene.
After escaping an ambush that leaves most of their hunting party dead, a small group of surviving hunters find their guide, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), half dead following a run-in with a mama grizzly and her cubs. While the small group initially carries Glass with them, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) eventually assigns two men – John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) – to stay with Glass and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) when Henry believes Glass only has a few days of life left, with the charge of burying Glass once he dies. A combination of fear and greed convince Fitzgerald to accelerate events, and Glass is ultimately left alive, half-buried in a shallow grave with his son’s body nearby. Enraged, Glass manages to make his way through hundreds of miles of wilderness with the singular goal of revenge for his son.
Make no mistake, The Revenant is a (grueling) visual wonder, with scenes that are among the best that 2015 offers. The first of those comes early – the ambush of the hunting party by native warriors, with the party’s survivors attempting to make their way to their boats and down river. Not long after comes the film’s most talked-about scene: a five-minute-long single take of Glass being mauled by a mama grizzly.
While the grizzly attack is obviously a filmmaking creation, many of the other experiences Glass endures are pure Method acting torture from/for DiCaprio. They include everything from crawling through mud to essentially recreating The Empire Strikes Back‘s tauntaun scene. It’s a remarkable physical performance from DiCaprio, the sort of torturous work that seems engineered to win Oscars. But DiCaprio isn’t really given a fully fleshed-out character to play. The Revenant provides Glass with various dreams and visions to try and convey what’s going on in his mind, but they’re overly abstract.
Rather than completely dwell on Glass’ journey, The Revenant periodically jumps to other characters: Henry and the rest of the survivors arriving at a shelter, Fitzgerald and Bridger arguing about the morality of abandoning Glass, a group of French fur trappers, and the warriors who ambushed the hunting party at the beginning of the film, who are eventually revealed to be looking for the kidnapped daughter of a tribal leader. The jumps are presented in a linear manner, but some make more sense narratively than others, with the French fur trappers in particular serving little purpose for most of the film.
These diversions have an odd effect on the film. Theoretically, the film would be more effective in focusing solely on Glass’ largely lonely journey, but those scenes begin to blur together as it is (especially as the film travels well over the two-hour mark). Those diversions also provide room for a performance more noteworthy than DiCaprio’s: Hardy’s performance as Fitzgerald. With a nearly indecipherable mumble, Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a clearly flawed character who still feels understandably human. He’s selfish, but he rationalizes his selfishness as self-preservation, and he always seems on the edge of snapping. It’s a fascinating turn that will likely be overshadowed by DiCaprio’s more showy performance, but Hardy’s performance helps make The Revenant worth watching all the same.