There are many things to admire about The Revenant – but its main character is not one of them, says MacDara Conroy
Before I get on to discussing The Revenant, the recipient of a whopping 12 Academy Awards nominations on the eve of its release, let’s talk about Rey. (There’s a point to this, I’ll get to it in a bit, trust me.)
Now, there’s been plenty of back and forth online regarding the categorisation of the desert planet scavenger within whom the Force awakens in the latest Star Wars saga. The more misogynist strains of geekdom have scoffed at the notion of a woman so apparently slight of frame and stature being so capable in their self-reflected ‘man’s world’. Which of course is ridiculous. On the other side, supposedly more enlightened voices are adamant that, despite her spontaneously acquiring knowledge of the Jedi mind trick as the film devolves into fan service, Rey cannot possibly be compared to a Mary Sue because that’s a bad word and bad things are bad.
(Mary Sue, you might ask? That’s the geek fiction archetype that originally referred to all-to-perfect self-insertion protagonists in fan fiction, but has evolved to describe any character who’s not just great at something but The Best, with superficial quirks in lieu of any real character flaws, and who invariably deus-ex-machinas themselves out of trouble. You’re wrong about this one, Charlie Jane Anders.)
Rey may not be a true Mary Sue, as its only in the second half of that movie where JJ Abrams and the writers lose the run of the character. But Hugh Glass, the real-life frontier scout portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, is most certainly the male equivalent. (Apparently that’s a Gary Stu, which is an even sillier name than Mary Sue, but howandever.)
That his is a 200-year-old ‘true story’ of survival against the odds trekking hundreds of miles through the wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase after a bear attack must, like all the great American legends, be taken with a generous helping of salt. That the version of Glass we see here acquires almost superhuman prowess as the story diverges from the real man’s self-recorded accounts to the revenge fantasy of Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, on which this film is based, well that just takes the biscuit.
It’s really all downhill after that scene with the bear. Following a dramatic open, as a party of fur trappers escape from a thrilling assault by a party of Ree Indians (who turn out to be in their own ethnicity-swapped version of The Searchers), Glass takes a wrong turn in the forest and winds up in a death match with a grizzly protecting her cubs. It’s a gripping shock to the senses, to be sure, and another highlight of the film, but not without an air of incredulity that such a puny human would survive a solo encounter with a beast that powerful. (The real Glass had help, as it happens.)
He doesn’t come out unscathed, of course, but despite being left for dead by a scheming opportunist, Glass is quickly resurrected as a kind of vengeful demon – literally crawl out of his own grave, his wounds and broken bones miraculously healing as he stealths his way up the rivers, through the woods and across the plains on the hunt for those who’ve done him wrong. It’s a real test of suspension of disbelief, that’s for sure. At one point he’s even symbolically reborn again from the carcass of a horse. Bear Grylls ain’t got nothing on him!
And yet there is much to admire about what’s basically a gritty western of the modern school, though more Bone Tomahawk than The Hateful Eight. A chameleonic Tom Hardy is wonderful as Fitzgerald, cast here as the villain of the piece, a bully who transmutes his own victimhood into violence against those around him. The fear and discomfort on the face of Will Poulter as the hapless, unwitting accomplice Bridger is hauntingly palpable. Domhnall Gleeson’s turn as the trapping party’s leader Captain Henry is a steelier, more enigmatic take on his Star Wars baddie role. DiCaprio is the least interesting of the lot, with his Batman growls and grunting and gurning.
The Revenant also looks incredible, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shooting in natural light to capture the rawness of the unspoilt American wilderness in all its visual majesty and stark, unforgiving harshness. The prominence of ancient plants surrounding the frontiersmen like nature itself mounting an ambush; the low angles emphasising humankind’s minuscule place in this world. It’s a deeply affecting work in that regard.
It’s impossible not to think of Terrence Malick, particularly his similarly beautiful but arse-numbing The Thin Red Line, which shares similar themes of characters with feet in two worlds, existential angst and the like. What it doesn’t share are The Revenant’s distracting stylistic flourishes, the smoothness of its lengthy CGI-augmented tracking shots at odds with the rawness and realness of the natural world it depicts.
But misapplication of technique is forgivable. What isn’t is the notion that DiCaprio’s character is anything other than a construct – a representation for the essence of struggle, perhaps, or a mirror on the lived experience of Manifest Destiny from the perspective or the coloniser and the native. He’s more walking thesis than man, all symbol and no substance. And that’s doubly worse when his abilities and experiences throughout the story are just that bit too convenient. He is a Gary Stu, through and through.
As such, there’s little for DiCaprio as an actor to grasp here, and it shows; at best, he’s simply various shades of angry. It’s simply asking too much to get behind a man whose gritted-teeth heroicism is more akin to something out of a grindhouse movie. Like Tom Hardy’s own Max Mad, even. Let’s face it, he wouldn’t even be in the running for one of 12 Oscar nominations lavished on this piece were it not about a real person from history, made by a director with previous in awards season. They love that kind of thing.
The Revenant opens nationwide on Friday January 15th