A revenant is essentially a ghost and the film The Revenant tells the tale of Leonard Dicaprio as a frontiersman, Hugh Glass, who virtually returns from the dead. It is directed by Chilean prodigy Alejandro Iñárritu (who last gave us the weird, wonderful and unforgettable Birdman). And it looks to be a major critical and commercial success.
The Revenant goes on for two and half hours but it is really only about half a movie. The scant narrative badly needs some kind of major subplot to bulk it up and provide contrast, but there is none. Consequently this film just keeps hammering away at the same nail and, despite all its mayhem, becomes monotonous, dull and repetitive.
It is a tale of survival and, ultimately, revenge. But after the spectacular opening, which features a fearsomely effective battle sequence, it is clear where the movie is going and the story remains linear, predictable and finally tedious.
There are no surprises, no variety, nothing to relieve the relentless singlemindedness. The result is a gruelling ordeal instead of an exciting adventure. After 150 minutes, the viewer is simply left weary.
This is despite an impressive cast full of fascinating faces, with Tom Hardy as a really memorably nasty villain. And Iñárritu is a director of almost crazed brilliance and originality — there's a stunning dream sequence in which Glass sees his murdered wife dying before him and her soul leaves her body in the form of a tiny bird taking wing.
There's also ravishingly beautiful location photography, mostly shot in the wilds of Canada, using only natural light and, unusually, filmed in story order. Extreme weather often made it a very tough shoot ("Every day was like a bear attack," says Iñárritu.) But the splendour of nature eventually palls. (Did I mention it's two and a half hours?) Plus there's ample animal cruelty on display — hardly surprising, given the setting and period. In this respect the movie is sort of a companion piece to In the Heart of the Sea.
I also disliked the ludicrously modern dialogue here. There's lots of this, but the thing that bugged me the most was the constant reference to the characters' weapons as "rifles". In fact, I think these are smooth bore muskets — whereas a rifle has a helical groove in the muzzle, called rifling, which improves accuracy. Anyway, the dialogue seems wrong and phony.
There's quite a lot of subtitles in the film, translating French and Pawnee, but where they are really needed is for a lot of Tom Hardy's lines in English, which are often incomprehensible, thanks to the silly accent he's affecting.
The film is based "in part" on a novel by Michael Punke, which in turn was inspired by real events (Hugh Glass did exist, had a fascinating life, and there's more than one book about him). The script is by Mark L. Smith (who wrote The Hole, directed by Joe Dante) in collaboration with Iñárritu .
But if you want to see this sort of film done right, watch Jeremiah Johnson, with a script by John Milius and Edward Anhalt. That's a properly crafted film, well written, and provides a satisfying and entertaining experience for the audience. It also actually does have rifles.
(Image credits: Surprisingly, only three posters at Imp Awards. The striking book cover is from Good Reads.)