Survival stories don’t know when to stop: that’s their point. Morality tales know exactly when to stop: that’s their point. What the devil happens when, as in The Revenant, you mix the two?
Morality tales are short because they are little twists of wisdom in which the story’s end bites the story’s beginning. Switchback ironies; runic mischiefs and recoil ingenuities; incidents at Owl Creek. Ambrose Bierce would have taken 10 pages to polish off the revenge kernel of The Revenant. Spiced with tragic irony, that kernel is surely the film’s essence as narrative nutrition?
Endurance yarns are the opposite. They hate to stop because the grass is always bloodier . . . The next bear, the next storm, the next pack of howling natives. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a semi-fictionalised version of Hugh Glass, a Midwest trapper who survived against near-impossible odds in the 1820s, living to stalk — in the film’s telling — the fellow trapper (Tom Hardy) who leaves him for dead, knowing him still alive. Half-burying his parlously wounded pal, Hardy’s character takes off after the bounty bonanza promised by his leader for overtime vigil.
DiCaprio’s Glass barely lives through a grizzly’s mauling — so graphic and prolonged it tears strips from your sangfroid — before he is cascading down wintry falls, chewing live fish, disembowelling a horse . . . The feats of this icicled Hercules, initially gripping, go on and on, varied by scenes with a chance-met Native American (Duane Howard) whose solitary function, we swiftly and rightly suspect, is to be a healer-mentor. He’s a one-trick Pawnee: the ancestral cliché of the holistic primitive.
Filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu, whose Birdman suggested he had come down from the inflated pomposities of Babel and Biutiful, has relearned vatic vacuity. For The Revenant’s scenery-besottedness — one cause of its long-windedness — we can’t wholly blame him. The locations and cinematography are wow-inducing. British Columbia in all weathers (playing the US Midwest) is lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki as if he had gorged on the complete works of JMW Turner and CD Friedrich. Molten stormscapes; soaring crags; sunsets so piercing they almost perform laser eye surgery.
Scenically we don’t begrudge the 156 minutes. It’s dramatically that they’re baggy and repetitive. And DiCaprio’s performance — gluttonous in its stunt-seeking if honourable in its emotions — is a heart, body and soul assault, barely disguised, on the Best Actor Oscar. Give him the damn thing, we almost feel by the close, and let’s move on.