Favorite

'The Revenant' unrevealing 

It's beautiful, brutal, tiresome.

click to enlarge A RUGGED TALE OF SURVIVAL: Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a man driven by revenge.
  • A RUGGED TALE OF SURVIVAL: Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a man driven by revenge.

In 1823, while employed as a scout for a fur-trading expedition, the Pennsylvania-born trapper Hugh Glass was savagely mauled by a grizzly bear in the wilds of present-day South Dakota. His party, fearing inclement weather, dwindling resources and attacks from neighboring Arikara Indians, left him behind. Glass was presumed dead, but like his peers in the pantheon of great 19th century mountain men, he had developed a rugged, hard-won imperishability. He crawled and scraped and dragged himself hundreds of miles through the woods — treating his wounds with maggots, shrouding himself in bear hide, scavenging roots and berries — and miraculously found his way back to his group's home fort. His motivation, according to the historical record, was revenge.

The Glass story was immortalized in Frederick Manfred's 1954 novel "Lord Grizzly," and was also filmed in 1971 as "Man of the Wilderness," starring Richard Harris and John Huston. In 2002, Michael Punke, who moonlights as a novelist when he isn't fulfilling his duties as U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization, published a novel about Glass titled "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge." (A "revenant" is a ghost.) This is the source material for Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's much-vaunted new film, which is visceral and severe and exhausting.

It's often said of Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" that it modernized boxing movies by putting the camera inside the ring; rather than a wide-shot, we were thrust into the desperate subjectivity of the fighters, where we could feel their speed and sweat. With "The Revenant," Iñárritu might have aimed to do something similar for the Western. We are often looking over DiCaprio's shoulder — as disoriented as he is — or nestled up uncomfortably close to his face, as he's being brutally injured in one of a thousand ways. The audience tends to find itself in the middle of the action, except when we don't, in which case we're given gorgeous, hyperchromatic landscapes, as vibrant as Hudson River School paintings.

There's something essentially admirable about this — about taking a lost chapter of American history (represented, for many of us, by a couple of textbook illustrations of Lewis and Clark and maybe a Davy Crockett hat) and rendering it with vivid, jarring intensity. To remind us that life in America was relatively impossible then, that it was dank and unhappy and ludicrously dangerous, seems like an artistically serious project. In this sense it reminded me of Terrence Malick's "The New World." Who's to say this sort of thing isn't exactly what Hollywood does best? When Cinemascope was introduced — with its preposterously wide frame — Billy Wilder famously joked that the format would be ideal for filming "the love story of two dachshunds." He might have also mentioned bear attacks.

But there just isn't much to it, finally. Where "The New World" was tactile and dreamlike, granular in its revisionism — and the same could be said of Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man," another acid-Western death-march into the early American frontier — "The Revenant" is kind of a one-dimensional experience. Considering its budget and scope, you can't help but be surprised by its lack of ambition, by how little it asks of us. DiCaprio has been celebrated for his performance, but I don't think I noticed one. He certainly didn't seem to be enjoying himself, but if athletic masochism is our metric, I've seen worse. (Steve-O jumped into the ocean with a fish-hook through his cheek in "Jackass 2"; where was his Golden Globe?)

The film's flashes of magical realism are perfunctory and repetitive, and the revenge plot — a narrative engine so primal that Iñárritu clearly hoped it could sustain our attention on its own — feels overly manipulative and eventually becomes dwarfed by Glass' more immediate obstacles. The stakes are high, in other words, but they are also tiresome. Midway through, I realized I'd have to suspend all character identification, or even to actively root against Glass' survival, to finish the thing. By the time it was over, I'd already begun to forget it.

Favorite

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Will Stephenson

  • A Q&A with Peter Guralnick

    On writing biographies, Elvis, Charlie Rich and more.
    • Apr 14, 2016
  • Ruthie Foster comes to South on Main

    Also, Mumford and Sons at Verizon, 29th Annual Ozark UFO Conference in Eureka Springs, Fantastic Cinema and Craft Beer Festival at Riverdale and Melanne Verveer at the Clinton School.
    • Apr 7, 2016
  • Goodbye to all that (Arkansas edition)

    What I'm trying to say is that I'm quitting the Arkansas Times — this is my last week — and not because I hated it, but because I loved it so much.
    • Apr 6, 2016
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Gay diamonds

    Scenes from Rodeo in the Rock.
    • May 7, 2015
  • Not much to 'Love'

    In Judd Apatow's new Netflix original series.
    • Feb 25, 2016

Most Shared

  • Department of Arkansas Heritage archeologist resigns

    Bob Scoggin, 50, the Department of Arkansas Heritage archeologist whose job it was to review the work of agencies, including DAH and the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, for possible impacts on historic properties, resigned from the agency on Monday. Multiple sources say Scoggin, whom they describe as an "exemplary" employee who the week before had completed an archeological project on DAH property, was told he would be fired if he did not resign.
  • Labor department director inappropriately expensed out-of-state trips, audit finds

    Jones was "Minority Outreach Coordinator" for Hutchinson's 2014 gubernatorial campaign. The governor first named him as policy director before placing him over the labor department instead in Jan. 2015, soon after taking office.
  • Lawsuit filed against ADC officials, prison chaplain convicted of sexual assault at McPherson

    A former inmate who claims she was sexually assaulted over 70 times by former McPherson Womens' Unit chaplain Kenneth Dewitt has filed a federal lawsuit against Dewitt, several staff members at the prison, and officials with the Arkansas Department of Corrections, including former director Ray Hobbs.
  • Rapert compares Bill Clinton to Orval Faubus

    Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway)  was on "Capitol View" on KARK, Channel 4, this morning, and among other things that will likely inspire you to yell at your computer screen, he said he expects someone in the legislature to file a bill to do ... something about changing the name of the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.

Latest in Movie Reviews

  • Not a princess

    'Moana' subverts the Disney 'wedding bell' formula.
    • Dec 1, 2016
  • Through a glass, grimly

    'Black Mirror' is science fiction set five minutes in the future.
    • Nov 17, 2016
  • Fear and wonder

    'Arrival' makes room for 'linguistic relativity.'
    • Nov 16, 2016
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

Arkansas remembers Pearl Harbor

Arkansas remembers Pearl Harbor

Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned

Event Calendar

« »

December

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31
 

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation