*the sixth of six very short reviews, in an attempt to catch up on 2015 film journalism before the 2016 movie season really kicks in*
The Revenant is a movie I thought I'd have a lot to say about. I don't.
I have a tricky history of interacting with the art of director Alejandro Iñárritu. I joined the minority of both cinephiles and occasional moviegoers in thinking that his 2014 film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was not the masterpiece many thought it was: I felt betrayed when it won Best Picture. Though it was a great movie (I'd have awarded it 4/5 stars had this site existed a year ago), it also exemplified my biggest grievance of indie filmmaking: it looked terrific, proudly pranced around like it had an important reality to convey, but didn't really mean much under its shiny exterior. To me, Birdman felt like a decorated treasure chest with only a picture of itself inside.
The Revenant feels similar- but it's a fancier treasure chest and a more obscured self-image hidden within; a massive technical triumph that searches for a lot of ways to say very little.
Some film journalists eat up Iñárritu's work like he's the next visionary filmmaker of our time, so maybe there's something missing from my studies as a purveyor of fine films. Maybe there's some higher form of art that an aspiring filmmaker like me hasn't aspired to yet. But for now, I'll tackle The Revenant as simply (and savagely) as the movie attacks its themes (and characters).
The single most impressive thing about The Revenant is Emmanuel Lubezki's groundbreaking cinematography. Many directors known for their visual style should actually direct much of the credit to Lubezki: he's worked extensively with Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick, as well as Iñárritu. The film crew braved dangerous weather conditions to shoot The Revenant on site, in natural lighting, and chronologically- and dear god, are the captured landscapes unequivocally breathtaking. Nature shots and battlegrounds are intense and bleak.
But the cinematography calls undue attention to itself during more mundane scenes, such as typical human interactions. It's a reminder that the movie is more interested in impressing us with technical mastery than taking time to develop characters as human beings.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy give their roles their usual utmost- especially in terms of raw physicality- but they never register as more than "the hunter" and "the hunted". There is no identifying with these people unless you've been in their exact situations before (I sincerely hope you have not). That is the exact opposite of what art usually seeks to accomplish.
Iñárritu continuously pushes the savage relationship between the hunter and the hunted as a theme, but it never becomes one. It remains a simple interaction throughout. There is no developing this interaction into a cinematic theme, just shoving the interaction in our faces repeatedly. Yes, alongside backdrops of pretty mountains and waterfalls, but a point isn't really made amongst the natural wonders. When Iñárritu remembers that he needs to be artful, strange scenes of floating dead wives are tossed into the mix. They only serve to confuse some and convince others that Iñárritu might have a complex message hidden out of sight.
Maybe there is one. But you'll have a hard time convincing me of its existence.
To borrow a phrase from Macbeth that Birdman borrowed: The Revenant is "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."