I can’t recall exactly where I first hear the term ‘misery-porn’ applied to a film, but I think it was around the release of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2010 film Biutiful, and referring not just to that film but his whole body of work as a director. The criticism in thus; in much the same way the infamous ‘torture-porn’ horror movie cycle of the 2000s often invited audiences to be entertained at the prospect of endless scenes of people being physically tortured, Iñárritu’s films were doing the same with people undergoing mental anguish.
It appears that last year’s turn into somewhat more light-hearted fare with the undeservedly Oscar-sweeping Birdman was an anomaly for Iñárritu, as his newest feature, survival western The Revenant, sees him embracing the opportunity to put suffering on screen like never before. It wouldn’t be unfair to describe this film as two and a half hours of watching Leonardo DiCaprio undergo both extreme physical and mental anguish. It’s relentless.
The film begins with DiCaprio and his band of trackers somewhere in the snowy 1820s US being attacked by a hostile tribe, and then a short while later he gets isolated and savagely mauled by a bear. His men find him at the brink of death, immobile, and unable to speak due to a throat-slashing. Soon afterward, his teenage son is murdered in front of him as he looks on helplessly, and then he’s abandoned in the ground. That’s all in the first few scenes, there’s plenty more suffering to come for DiCaprio.
The bulk of the film is a slow slog as he gradually attempts to regain his strength, heal his wounds, and make his way back to his company’s camp to take revenge. Throughout, Iñárritu really wants you to feel his pain, there are endless extreme close ups of his tortured face twisting in agony, alongside plenty of his horrific injuries. Even in his broken state, he must still endure the hardships of the freezing weather, struggle to find food, and avoid occasional attacks by those out to kill him. He goes through more onscreen in this than anyone did in the likes of Hostel, and frankly, it become tiresome rather quickly. How much unremitting misery would Iñárritu like to have us watch before he makes any kind of point?
The story of The Revenant is, when distilled, an extremely simple and familiar one. A capable man is betrayed and left for dead by his team, someone beloved to him is killed, he then goes on a mission of revenge. I could be describing countless older westerns, or indeed straight-to-DVD action movies here, and while the basic revenge plot is something I’m sure there’s still potential to explore further, The Revenant doesn’t find anything new to say say on the consequences of being driven by vengeance. It seems satisfied with mainly displaying how tough it was to survive in this environment.
Story is very much of secondary importance to Iñárritu it would appear though, and while this film is excessive, indulgent, and tedious on occasion, there are still a number of positive aspects to be found, and from a technical perspective it’s often highly impressive. The real star of this movie is not Leonardo DiCaprio, but genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who will likely win his third consecutive Oscar for his work here.
The opening scene of this film is simply incredible, as we meet the group of trappers (are they military? I’m not entirely sure, their commander appears to be) they are collecting pelts for selling on. They come under the aforementioned attack from a local Native American tribe and a tremendous scene unfolds as they try to escape whilst being fired upon from all sides. The whole scene plays out in an apparent single take (I imagine digital trickery was in fact employed similarly to Birdman) adding an immersive urgency to the sequence. The choreography in remarkable, as members of the group can get sudden arrows through the head at any moment, all the while the camera swirls around them, moving from person to person. Iñárritu doesn’t try to keep up the whole single take trick he used in Birdman, but there are still a number of long takes in the film where again, the camera constantly moves around the action taking place in a remarkable manner. A fight in the final act also has a crushing, brutal reality to it due to the camera’s unwavering positioning.
In the brief moments when it’s not focused on suffering, The Revenant finds time to exhibit the beautiful if bleak snow-swept landscapes of its setting, and Iñárritu weaves in some memorable imagery, including some dream sequences in which DiCaprio’s character sees both memories and visions I’ve yet to fully decipher.
The acting is consistently excellent, if perhaps overwrought on occasion. The supporting players include Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson (who’s had quite the year) and Tom Hardy as members of the group that abandons DiCaprio, though all for different reasons which later renders their reaction to his survival all the more interesting. Hardy is especially good as the primary antagonist, adopting yet another different accent and a scar across his head as the result of an attempted scalping. His lively, eccentric take on playing a fairly hateful character is a good contrast to DiCaprio’s determined earnestness.
As for DiCaprio himself, when he failed to win an Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street (which he would have very much deserved), I predicted that he’d eventually win one for some middle-of-the-road drama in about a decade’s time. It looks like he wants that statue more than anything though, begging the audience to see just what he’s prepared to put himself through. When he plunges into the icy streams, you know his pain is real. In all seriousness, he truly commits to his portrayal of utmost suffering here, but it becomes, particularly in the middle sections of the film, just a bit too much of the same thing. There isn’t much of a character here, more a vessel for illustrating tortured survival. He probably will win, but I’d bet history won’t look back on The Revenant as his best work. Toward the films’ conclusion, he looks to the audience with a look of exasperation and his face all but silently screams; “Are you not entertained?”