The Revenant's two-and-a-half-hour length is a good example of that. Though breathtakingly shot (by the master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) and handsomely mounted, what starts out with to-the-point directness as a survivalist western quickly gets bogged down in fuzzy mysticism and over-ponderous ruminations, once trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo di Caprio) is left for dead by the treacherous, grudge-bearing Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a member of his own party. At the exact point at which Mr. Iñárritu's film should have taken off, from a gritty quasi-western shot in Herzog-like-conditions into a gripping tale of survival in the wild, it collapses instead, into a dullish collection of son et lumière visuals entranced by its own virtuoso aspects.
This is not to say there is insincerity in The Revenant, which is for me Mr. Iñárritu's best work since his striking debut with Amores Perros. It's a quieter, less frantic work - the long stretches of silence in the wilderness and the restrained score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto help enormously. But the director's recurrent theme of men taking a shot at redemption while aware that there is no possible grace to be found, only sacrifice, remains stubbornly overbearing. Mr. Di Caprio really has nothing to do other than play the silent martyr, as his actions do not give us a doorway into a character that remains a cypher throughout and the film seems to require of him nothing but his mere presence (see Leo be mauled by a bear!). Mr. Hardy fares better with his curled-moustache villain, but he too has nothing to play against.
And Mr. Iñárritu, too concerned with making everything "look real" or even "feel real", ends up turning the film into pure diorama in a nature shot with all the awe of Terrence Malick's ecstasies, a mere pageant taking place in front of us in which we never become involved. If much of the media narrative for The Revenant revolves around its you-are-there visuals, it also implies that became the film's sole reason for existing, while diverting attention from the many shortcomings at its center. Someone should tell Mr. Iñárritu to stop indulging so much.
US, HK, TW, 2015, 156 minutes
Leonardo di Caprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard, Arthur Redcloud
DIR Alejandro G. Iñárritu; SCR Mr. Iñárritu, Mark L. Smith, novel The Revenant by Michael Punke; DP Emmanuel Lubezki (widescreen); M Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, Bryce Dessner; PROD DES Jack Fisk; COST DES Jacqueline West; ED Stephen Mirrione; SP Rich McBride; PROD Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Mr. Iñárritu, Mary Parent, Keith Redmon, James W. Skotchdopole
New Regency Pictures, Anonymous Content, M Productions and Appian Way Productions, in association with Alpha Hong Kong and Catch Play; a Regency Enterprises presentation in association with Ratpac Entertainment, released by Twentieth Century-Fox