The Revenant is stark and simple, gorgeous and grueling

Leonardo DiCaprio (center) in The Revenant

In 1908, Jack London wrote a short story that became an oft-anthologized classic, titled “To Build a Fire.” A grim account of the last day in the life of a prospector in the Yukon Territory, it’s required reading (preferably on a sweltering summer day) for anyone who wants to comprehend the true danger of hypothermia, that deadliest of emissaries of Nature’s implacable wrath. It may also be the most perfectly self-contained example of the “naturalism” movement in American literature.

A crucial component of that perfection is the fact that “To Build a Fire” is a short story – not a novel; not a feature film. And that’s where Alejandro G. Iñ‑árritu’s latest cinematic opus, The Revenant, goes astray. It may be the most visually stunning man-versus-Nature movie ever filmed, and it may be extraordinary in the degree of commitment exhibited by star Leonardo DiCaprio, the rest of the cast and crew in shooting it under grueling conditions. But when it comes to dramatic conflicts, man-versus-Nature is just too simple a plot construct to hold up for two-and-a-half hours of viewing. I was frequently wowed, but also frequently looking at my watch, and more than ready for it to be over by the beginning of Act III.

The Revenant is but the latest of many interpretations of the life and adventures of Hugh Glass, a backwoodsman, hunter and scout who managed to survive a bear attack during an 1823 fur-trapping expedition along the Missouri River. Left for dead by his comrades as they fled an Arikara war band, with a broken leg and his ribs showing through his festering mauled back, Glass crawled and hobbled more than 200 miles to the nearest American fort. It was one of those frontier tales that, in Tolkien’s words about The Lord of the Rings, “grew in the telling.”

This latest movie version is based on Michael Punke’s 2002 book about Glass, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. Though most of the story focuses on Glass’s near-superhuman efforts to stay alive one day, one hour, one minute at a time, he also wants vengeance on the two men who had been assigned to stay with him after the bear attack and then punked out: John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and a very young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), the latter destined to become one of the greatest explorers of the American West. There’s something to be said for the concept of surviving just for spite, but the revenge angle doesn’t add a great deal of depth to this story – just length.

I seem to be recommending a lot of movies primarily on the basis of outstanding cinematography of late; add The Revenant to that list. The long tracking shots that captured such critical admiration in Iñárritu’s previous hit, Birdman, recur here without calling quite so much attention to themselves in the expansive landscapes of the Louisiana Purchase (shot largely in Alberta, British Columbia and Argentina). Emmanuel Lubezki may well be set to take home his third Best Cinematography Oscar in a row for The Revenant.

It’s a very good thing that we have all these spectacular big-sky vistas as backdrops for the human interaction in this film, because that’s where this reviewer found it wanting. DiCaprio does a splendid job of dragging himself around the harsh-but-gorgeous landscape, convincing us that he’s at death’s door, throwing himself into churning rapids to escape those pesky Arikaras. His physical acting can’t be faulted, but it’s tough to judge his line delivery, because Glass barely says a word throughout the entire movie. Post-bear attack, his breathing seems to be impaired, and his continual overamplified grunting and snuffling dominates the soundtrack for the very long time that DiCaprio’s alone onscreen.

Most of the dialogue in The Revenant is assigned to Fitzgerald, a thinly sketched opportunistic villain who from the moment we meet him is keen on abandoning or killing anyone who slows down the expedition – especially after the Arikara raid that wipes out two-thirds of the fur-trading party. Hardy adds notes of mordant humor to the dour, hard-nosed survivalist trapper, but lays on the Western twang so thickly that I was only able to make out about one word in ten that he uttered. The best scenes of interhuman tension involve the expedition’s green young captain, Andrew Henry, convincingly rendered by Domhnall Gleeson (who seems to be in every other movie released these days) as an honorable officer who has gotten his men into dire straits that overmatch his wilderness experience.

That being said, part of the message of The Revenant is that the demands of survival in this raw country are bigger than even the best frontiersman’s solo resources. Glass himself makes some dumb mistakes, like coming between a mother bear and her cubs or letting his clothing get soaked in wintertime. That he manages better than Jack London’s poor doomed guy trying to relight his doused fire has as much to do with occasional assists from the land’s indigenous inhabitants as it does with his woods smarts. Conversely, the worst cruelties in this wilderness are visited by human on human, not at the hands of impersonal, morally neutral Nature.

If the story of one badly injured man enduring a long and punishing physical ordeal is your idea of great, primal drama, The Revenant is definitely for you. If, however, you prefer a story that’s propelled at times by interesting (and decipherable) dialogue, you may find it…long and punishing.

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