There was a lot to get excited about in the run-up to the release of The Revenant. Any film starring both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, especially when they get to square off against each other, deserves a look. The fact that it is in part based on an extraordinary true tale of survival in the face of extreme adversity, and part-based on a tale of good, old-fashioned, revenge seems like the icing on the cake.
However, ‘inspired by true events’ can also make a film difficult to enjoy - which parts of the plot are true? Which parts did they change? Does it matter? In Hollywood it’s usually the case that the truth is never seen as quite good enough of a story to tell as-is, so scriptwriters look for plot devices to help us simple folk - the film-going public - from getting bored.
The events that inspired The Revenant centre around the story of Hugh Glass - a frontiersman and trapper who in 1823 was left for dead in the woods following a vicious grizzly bear attack in South Dakota. Glass, part of a fur-trading expedition, was very severely mutilated by the bear and his wounds were so bad that it was thought Glass would certainly die. It was decided that two men would wait with Glass and bury him when the time came. Instead, they took Glass’ rifle and left him alone in the woods.
Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio rolling around in the snow for two hours isn’t really enough of a reason to watch a film.
Perhaps what makes this story so compelling is not only did Glass make it out of the wilderness alive with injuries that included a broken leg and cuts so deep his bare ribs were exposed, it is also the fact that afterwards he spent over a year tracking down both men who had abandoned him, forgiving one man and deciding not to kill the other after being given his rifle back.
This story was clearly not considered compelling enough for a 2015 retelling, so the writers of The Revenant decided to jazz it up a bit. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with writing a piece of fiction or adapting a story. What I find difficult to comprehend is why some writers fail to understand why a story was captivating in the first place, and so decide to modify the motivations of the main characters in order to make something which is apparently more interesting. In doing so, it’s easy to lose sight of what attracted them to the tale in the first place.
Unfortunately, even without a proper grasp of the history behind Hugh Glass, it seems painfully obvious which events have been shoe-horned into the plot to spice it up. Glass now has a son who is also on the trip. This son is of Native American descent, which feels a bit like a bumbling and half-hearted attempt at throwing some modern-day social commentary into the mix. The idea of Glass purely seeking retribution by getting his rifle back and forgiving someone isn’t quite seen as good enough for DiCaprio’s character, so the addition of a son gives us quite an obvious set-up to what is supposedly a more understandable reason to seek a better type of revenge.
On the face of it, I think this could work if it wasn’t for the clumsy way in which the film goes about its business. It’s like the entire creative team on this effort are wearing giant oversized boots and are going around stamping meaning into the film.
STOMP. STOMP. STOMP. We need more metaphors. How about some evil sounding wind rustling through the trees? STOMP STOMP. We need to understand what motivates Glass to want to trek 200 miles in six weeks, since just wanting to stay alive doesn’t really sound plausible. STOMP. Let’s say his dead wife keeps talking to him in visions. STOMP STOMP STOMP. Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio rolling around in the snow for two hours isn’t really enough of a reason to watch a film. Let’s have some side story about a tribe of Native Americans looking for their leader’s missing daughter by going around killing everyone. STOMP. STOMP. STOMP.
The visions in particular come across as quite heavily contrived and borrowed. You can tell when a film has lost its audience when what are meant to be thought-provoking vision-quest scenes simply make people laugh. Some people say they can hear the forest talking to you. Well, Glass doesn’t even get that deep - he just sees his wife floating above him. I guess he likes his visions to be a bit more direct and obvious. STOMP. STOMP. STOMP.
The real Glass let maggots eat his wounds to prevent gangrene.
Even the feat of survival in the wilderness seems to be treated in a clumsy manner. It’s as if, in order to try to convey exactly how tough it is to survive in the woods against the odds, we are presented with Leonardo DiCaprio looking like he’s having a really difficult time out there while filming. We should be believing that we’re watching Glass surviving in the woods. Instead, the filmmakers succeed in simply making me believe that DiCaprio was physically pushed hard during the filming and made to do nasty things like get dirt in his mouth and eat raw meat. I never see Glass - I only ever see DiCaprio rolling around in the snow.
Juxtaposed against this, we have the main focus of DiCaprio’s revenge - a character called Thomas Fitzgerald, played brilliantly by Tom Hardy. Whilst DiCaprio is having a bad day in some snow, Tom Hardy is right in character - uncaring, plotting and lying his way out of trouble. From the first moment he steps on screen, we dislike Fitzgerald and can instantly identify with his personality type - always complaining about everybody else, while only out for himself. The difference between the two actors, and their requirements within the movie could be something which works incredibly well, but somehow it just doesn’t quite wash.
The entire film is strangely out of step, as if it doesn’t know what it wants to be. As a straight-up survival film, it falls short - there are far too many lucky escapes that border on the ludicrous, and key elements for survival seem to have been missed out. The real Glass let maggots eat his wounds to prevent gangrene - in a film which doesn’t shy away from very graphically explaining what a bear attack looks like, leaving this out seems an odd omission. More importantly, we are presented with a version of reality where it is apparently OK to jump in rivers in freezing cold temperatures, get out and wander around for days on end without needing to dry your clothes off. We are left distanced from the environment - I never really feel how cold it must have been out there back in 1823, or even how bad it was for the actors to recreate it.
If we look at The Revenant as a film largely about revenge, it again falls short. We’re even given the corny old line about DiCaprio having ‘nothing to lose’ - the whole idea of a man becoming revenge personified because he has everything taken away from him is presented so clearly that I am instantly reminded of other films that have already covered this ground in a much better way. ‘Man on Fire’ and ‘Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai’ are two that spring to mind. In The Revenant, there is an opportunity to show Glass’ humanity being stripped away by his weeks spent in the forest, slowly being replaced by bitterness and an overwhelming desire to have his revenge. I want to see the rage building up inside him. Instead I just see Leonardo DiCaprio making grunting noises while rolling around in the snow.
Finally we have the vision scenes. We are given indications that this film is trying to take us on a spiritual journey, perhaps a cleansing of the soul, with Glass battling his inner turmoil. Whilst struggling for life, he sees his dead wife over and over again, a broken-down church, a load of skulls. It’s heavily laden with symbolism, but the treatment is so contrived and blatant that I’m left wondering if it was designed for people who’ve never seen a visual metaphor before.
It serves as a vehicle to show that Leonardo DiCaprio is willing to suffer for his art, and that Tom Hardy continues to be a brilliant actor who looks well evil and all that.
At one point in the film we see a close up of Leonardo DiCaprio’s face and shoulder. He’s wearing a leather jacket that is being held together with bits of string. The meaning is clear - Glass’ back was sewn together after the bear attack. He is a broken man. His jacket reflects the fact that he is both literally and figuratively held together with string. However, the jacket is relatively clean and shiny, and the sewing is neat, evenly arranged and tightly held together. I understand what the director is trying to tell me, but I never for a single moment believe it.
As DiCaprio continues to drag himself around in the snow, so too does the film. It drags on and on. Perhaps we’re supposed to endure it in the way that Glass endured his ordeal - no doubt wishing it was over sooner. In essence, this is a film with a very bloody and vomit-inducing bear attack at the start, followed by two hours of grunting, culminating in a fight scene in some snow between two half dead people. It serves as a vehicle to show that Leonardo DiCaprio is willing to suffer for his art, and that Tom Hardy continues to be a brilliant actor who looks well evil and all that. However it sadly falls down in almost every other way.
Some people say it is a travesty that Leonardo DiCaprio has not won an Oscar yet. I think it would be a travesty if anyone wins an Oscar for this below-par effort.