Review: THE REVENANT, An Admirable, Handsome Failure

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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Review: THE REVENANT, An Admirable, Handsome Failure

It begins, as you might expect, with a sweeping shot that's equal parts glorious and gratuitous. 

For The Revenant isn't just some run-of-the-mill flick, this is Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's latest flick, a follow up for his much-lauded Birdman. The photography is by Emmanuel Lubezki, arguably the most creative and tenacious artist capturing images for screen working today, the man that lensed the likes of Gravity and Children of Men, as well as that Keaton flick. Lubezki's who you hire when you want it done hard, and the decision to shoot with natural light should be the stuff of cinephilic dreams.

And for a time, bless them, it is. The sumptuous palate, the preposterous locations and sterling scenery makes it feel like a film out of time. Story-wise, it's old fashioned: guys in the wilderness tale, with man battling beast and elements alike, finding the most insidious enemy to be within his own species. It could have been amazing, an enthralling piece that showcases immense talent with a harrowing storyline brought to life in epic fashion.

Unfortunately, however, it's a bit of a dud, a wet-powder shot that fizzles from the get go. But for moments, there, you can see the glory that might have been.

Firstly, there's Leonardo DiCaprio, a man so committed to the role that it feels churlish not to give him the damn golden trophy already. You can practically feel his nuts being froze, his back being bent out of shape, the physicality oozing from the screen, and, given that much of it is choreographed and carefully shot, a testament to, you know, acting. There's a battle with a bear that seems to go on just long enough that you want to turn away. And there's a fire in Leo's eyes that's the greatest effect of the piece, a fierceness that's by far the most captivating element.

Tom Hardy does his best to work with very little, injecting his charisma and seediness into what's otherwise a quite two-dimensional character. Others don't fare so well, getting lost in the frame, mere fodder for the storyline rather than detailed beings. For a film so meticulous with location and shooting effects, it's the dramaturgy that suffers, the story getting short shrift in favour of the masochism of shooting in such dreary circumstances.

As a visual trifle the film's a treat, as a showcase for Leo it's not bad at all (and better actors have won for worse films), but as the story trudges on and on through the snow, it feels more and more burdened with its lack of purpose or subtlety. There's not much more in an hour that we haven't learned in the first twenty, and certainly not much by the end that hasn't been telegraphed more than enough times.

Like Birdman, one can applaud the technique but find the execution lacking, but with Revenant there's the added factor of an even more chilly storyline to match the cold locale. I gasped as a fan of cinematography at some of the shots, preposterous camera moves up steep inclines. Yet these feats of prowess don't make for a good film, simply an interesting one from a technical standpoint. For a film where people get lost a lot, I'm never quite sure that the work had a great idea of how it was to get to a satisfying destination from the get-go.

It's a film worth seeing for cinematography fans, basking in the Barry Lyndon / Kubrickian hubris of pushing the shooting style to an extreme. The bear scene is quite remarkable, as are a few of the more effective dramatic beats. But throughout you feel the seams of the storyline, even if the sweeping single-shot sequences belie their CGI stitching. 

The Revenant isn't the worst thing you're going to see this season, but it could well have been one of the best. The fact that it fails at being one of the best is mocked by the lofty goals it set itself. This is an admirable, handsome failure, more of an interesting fetish piece for technicians than a properly executed thrill ride that it attempts to be.

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Alejandro González IñárrituDomnhall GleesonLeonardo DiCaprioTom Hardy

More about The Revenant

ManateeAdvocateDecember 24, 2015 12:15 PM

Aw, that's a shame. I'm going to see it anyways.

muckermanDecember 24, 2015 12:41 PM

For me it is the best film of the year. I respect you Gorber but our tastes are certainly different as I find myself disagreeing with your reviews more often than agreeing with them.

guestDecember 24, 2015 1:27 PM

i will see it.
but i really really detest cold freezing weather.
i really hate it.
so this movie better be good.
somehow.

omnisemantic1December 24, 2015 3:17 PM

I had to stop the movie about an hour in. Yes, I did download and watch the leaked screener - and good thing I did too. The movie is filmed gorgeously, the direction is uncompromising, and Di Caprio is as good as he's ever been, but... It's boring as the hell it's trying to depict and I don't mean that it's slow. It's just so cold and distant and observing that it ends up making you NOT care at all about the main character, which in a movie like this is literally a death sentence. It's clear that Inarritu made exactly the film he wanted to make, but why he would want to make it in the first place is beyond me. I wouldn't mind DiCaprio getting that damn Oscar in February, but "The Revenant" itself ends up being way less than the sum of its parts...

muckermanDecember 24, 2015 3:38 PM

Guy downloads a screener and watches it illegally, not the way it was meant to be seen. Then turns it off an hour in and has the nerve to declare the film is way less than the sum of it's parts. Good grief.

Jason GorberDecember 24, 2015 3:52 PM

ah, fun! Well, at least you'll see a consistency there! Hope you still get something out of reading my perspective on it...

muckermanDecember 24, 2015 4:23 PM

I always get something out of reading your perspective! I appreciate the criticisms as some of them are quite valid. I believe I was definitely in agreement with you on Sicario, which is another of my favorites this year. I guess with The Reverant it may have touched me on a more emotional level because I am a new father to a son. The common criticism with the film seems to be that the story is simple one of revenge and doesn't amount to much. While I am not too sure I've pinpointed exactly what it is yet I think there is a deeper meaning to be found in this film. I believe there is way more going on with the film than it's given credit for so far. Never did I find it boring. For me it was engrossing, though tough to watch. I believe it will age well and be more rewarding in a repeated viewing.

omnisemantic1December 24, 2015 4:43 PM

It IS the way it is meant to be seen genius - this is what they sent the critics to watch in advance of the academy's awards! There were no technical issues with the copy or the film for that matter and watching it "illegally" does not mindf**k you into not being able to evaluate your own feelings of experiencing it. I can see that you did enjoy it, and I'm honestly happy for you, but don't try and put your naive acknowledgement of copyright law in support of the craft that went into the movie, cause that's an entirely different thing.

muckermanDecember 24, 2015 4:59 PM

Honestly, I was more annoyed that you posted an opinion on a film you didn't even watch half of than I am about you watching it off an illegal download. Sometimes a film deserve to be seen on a big screen though, as it'll have your full attention and won't be so easy to walk out on.

saulDecember 24, 2015 8:03 PM

Compliments a film saying "filmed gorgeously" yet says so whilst having watched 1 hour of a shitty screener copy.. lol.

omnisemantic1December 24, 2015 8:54 PM

Well that's something much different and I do agree to a point - had I been in the cinema I would have never walked out. However, I don't think that watching the remainder of the movie would have changed my opinion. I am certain there would have been no surprises, because any such developments would ruin what the director was going for, which clearly ain't something that I am the audience for :)

Youssef AbdelmohsenDecember 25, 2015 10:47 AM

Hm maybe I am not well versed in the purpose/point of reviews but Jason, you pointed out with abstract words and metaphors that there's something wrong with the story. At least that's what you seem to be implying. I think it would have been much more interesting if you pointed/referenced something that if fixed could have made this movie a masterpiece. I watched the film and enjoyed it very much, and reading your review I can kind of see where you're coming from but I just want to understand specifically what you think is wrong with the story, how you think it could be fixed to be the masterpiece you want it to be.

ibbie lawsonDecember 25, 2015 8:25 PM

MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF 2015 !!!

I was lucky enough to be able to watch this movie today, Christmas Day. I loved it !

Some of these critics really annoy me. I think they like to say whatever is going to garner the most attention. "Here, look at me!! Read my review!!"

I would say ignore all of them. Just go watch the movie when it plays in your theater and make up your own mind.

wagnerfilmDecember 25, 2015 10:45 PM

Or, maybe you live in a world where not everyone likes everything that you like.

Elia StKareneDecember 26, 2015 12:14 PM

Beautiful and painful to watch. At times even nice to reflect upon and think how easy all of our lives are now. A typical revenge story though, and even more typical in the Western genre. It's interesting to think this is DiCaprio's best work when he barely speaks a line. Maybe Hardy's best work since Bronson but I begin to wonder if he has any range beyond mumbling anger. My hopes that are someday we get a psyfy or superhero movie by this director/cinematographer team. Just for the camera work alone the movie is worth a watch and of the three Western that just came out/are coming out this is the best.

Warner BrownDecember 28, 2015 1:09 AM

You have zero respect for filmmaking of any kind watching an illegal copy of a piece of cinema that took 8-months to produce and was painful to create for many, to download and shut it off after an hour as if it is that disposable. Next time pay filmmakers the respect they deserve, and watch in the theater rather than disposing of it like a half-used tampon.

Jason GorberDecember 28, 2015 2:04 AM

Go dig up SLOW WEST and (personal fav) THE SALVATION, let alone SICARIO, for some stellar Westerns of late... Then check out docs CARTEL LAND and WESTERN for good measure (all reviewed here on the site)

Jason GorberDecember 28, 2015 2:07 AM

Verdant simile, though isn't that like half pregnant?
Call it what you will but, yes, I'm quite fascist - you don't finish the film (either by sleeping or leaving) you don't give a review. Mostly talking of my colleagues, of course, many of them with appalling habits of leaving for a comfort break for an extended period of time and/or snoozing, but that's a rant for another day....

The film is flawed, but demands to be seen on a big screen if ever.

Jason GorberDecember 28, 2015 2:09 AM

That's exactly what I found lacking (and what I found in GRAVITYY, that some slagged as being slight on story.) for me it didn't work narratively, but it remains at times viscerally thrilling and suptuously photographed.

Jason GorberDecember 28, 2015 2:09 AM

As you should... What did you think?

nyckrazyDecember 28, 2015 5:14 PM

there actually is a suprise, well more like a trick towards the end of the movie. But you have already made your decision.

Elia StKareneDecember 28, 2015 8:06 PM

Thanks Jason. I put them all on my list. Happy new year to you and the team at twitch.

Adrian TorresJanuary 11, 2016 1:15 AM

If you're looking for further (since 2000) revival/revisionist/modern/alterative westerns, seek these out:

*Seraphim Falls
*The Proposition
*The 3 Burials of Melquiades Estrada
*Meek's Cutoff
*The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
*There will be blood
*No Country for Old Men
*Rango
*The Good The Bad The Weird