There is a moment in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder where Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck are inexplicably surrounded by a herd of bison. The pair stand at their car and are awed by the majesty of the moment. And so are we, the audience. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film The Revenant there is also a scene featuring a character stumbling upon some bison. The moment strives for a similar feeling of, well, wonder, but fails to deliver. It’s the approaches of these two filmmakers that spells all the difference. In Malick’s world an experience like that feels like luck, a chance encounter with real, live animals. And it’s also fleeting, a moment in a waterfall of moments that burns in your brain because it feels so fragile. In The Revenant everything is so rigorously composed, from the camerawork (filmed by longtime Malick associate Emmanuel Lubezki) to the herd itself, a computer-generated stampede heading to the end of the frame before disappearing, literally, forever.
It’s these moments in The Revenant that manage to shoot an otherwise pretty decent survivalist Western in the foot. When González Iñárritu is committed to the straightforward nature of his simple story, which is about a trapping scout who has to brave the elements to save his life and avenge a loved one, the film works well. There is a great sense of atmosphere and the occasional thrill. But whenever he grasps at poetry or pulls out a flashy camera trick–both of which happen often–the film flounders.
The film opens with a raid on a poacher’s encampment in which González Iñárritu throws the camera right in the middle of the action with sweeping, unbroken takes. While the technique is intended to feel visceral and immediate, it comes off like playing a video game. A similar problem crops up when steam or blood appears on the camera lens. Attempting to provide a thrilling verisimilitude, these elements just remind the viewer that there is a camera there, a move more distancing than inviting.
González Iñárritu is a competent director but he’s a far too confident one for his capabilities. His misplaced desire to make this film more important than it is sabotages its better qualities. The same could be said for star Leonardo DiCaprio who grimaces, grunts, and groans his way through increasingly desperate–and subsequently sillier–circumstances. DiCaprio plays the story so straight that it teeters on the brink of collapse. Early on he fights a bear and it is terrifying. Two hours later, after being chased, shot at, abandoned, and nearly frozen, he falls off a cliff with his horse. By this point it has gone from harrowing to hilarious.
All of the issues with The Revenant are best summed up by its final moments. As the film comes to its entirely expected conclusion, Lubezki’s camera lingers on a shot of a snowy bank and an icy river. There is nobody in the frame, just the frigid water and a pool of blood. It’s a perfect shot to end a movie about the harsh worlds of nature and man. Instead González Iñárritu tacks on two more shots, closing with the worst decision in the entire film. In an effort to make something serious and smart, González Iñárritu ended up with something dopier than dumb and fun.