The Revenant is a clanging, stereotypical trek through America’s colonial past

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There’s an old joke about Hollywood screenwriting that shows up in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. You have a hero, but how do you justify delaying his victory for two hours? How do you sentimentalize him? “Orphan or dame,” sings the producer, reciting it like a law. The Revenant chooses both.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, since the end of his three-film partnership with network-narrative screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, has taken on part of the writing duties himself. With Michael Punke’s historical fiction novel, what Iñárritu does, essentially, is adapt the first half, streamlining the second to cause a simple pursuit-converge climax between Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), two colonial fur trappers who find themselves within sight of the Rocky Mountains for very different reasons. But just as there is skill in Iñárritu’s shearing away of extra characters and departures and paths, there is something very apprentice-like and amateurish in what he adds to the story.

Glass, according to the historical record (ie, the reason this is being marketed as “Inspired by True Events”), is a character-type that shows up everywhere in 19th century written documents: a love of maps, “uncharted” territories, sea and land exploration. His is the story that has soaked into the North American mythic consciousness — when Iñárritu revives it, its release is accompanied by press stories screaming, like Edward Norton’s character in Birdman might, “It’s a real experience — finally, a director who cares about the truth: the set wasn’t fake, the meat wasn’t fake, the exhaustion wasn’t fake, the snow falling on DiCaprio’s tongue wasn’t fake…” Punke, in his notes on the book, is the first to point out this is a skewed version of a past that never truly existed — the world experienced through books and written language is never the world complete. “The fur trade era contains a murky mixture of history and legend, and some legend no doubt has invaded the history of Hugh Glass,” Punke writes.

Iñárritu writes more in: he buys in, completely, to the film legend narrative, where Native Americans are the Platonic enemy, factionalized, beyond understanding; as Thomas King puts it, they are endlessly “eroticized and exoticized.” Glass, as history has it, met his wife, Elizabeth van Aartzen, on a Fourth of July in Philadelphia, where they danced, in the days that followed, attended short social calls, and, when Glass went back to sea, longed through distant correspondence, before his travels brought him back to the East Coast and they were married. Iñárritu gives Glass a Native wife, who we see repeatedly murdered by gunfire in flashback, hovering in Tarkovskian rhapsody in dreams, and hear whispering little motivations for her pioneer husband to “grab a breath, keep fighting.” Glass also has a son, who he shelters, telling him, in a tense scene, to stay invisible among the white traders they travel with, and encounters a man who has similarly been damaged by the violence that surrounds them — he shelters and gives Glass medicine, and, like the son and the wife, is simply a prop for Glass’s narrative, to be used for tears or motivation and tossed to the periphery. Evidently, this is Iñárritu’s way of putting his stamp on the project, which has passed before other directors, unable to get produced for more than a decade: adapting the work to include his on-brand watered-down magic-realism. In the Natives, he sees a mystic naturalism, as so many before him have, rather than an American tradition that is old and uninteresting and could use some revising.

The real focus here, of course, as in Birdman, is the magic revisionism of Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork. Lubezki’s tunnel-vision long-takes were a perfect conceptual match for Birdman’s backstage theatricality — panning between pent-up agression, self-critical sarcasm, and manic grasps at relevancy, quickly, like Rope without any moral purpose. But in The Revenant, the serious war-and-bloodshed tone (with Ryûichi Sakamoto’s score crawling up from the earth, like William Basinsky’s “Disintegration Loops (Cinematic Remix)”) is undercut by a similar visual approach — this is not a character’s subjectivity, with whom we might empathize, feel dismay or flickers of life with, but the camera, panning casually across a landscape of fire, cool air, and black-and-red throat-gouges, then back into the face of an actor, usually DiCaprio, usually with a long muzzle pointed outward, to register a reaction into the lens. Lubezki’s tricks with Alfonso Cuaron and Terrence Malick have the air of experimentation, trying out new technology, or improvising without a script — here the wide-angle lens, distorting faces, catching spittle, getting covered in blood squibs or carbon-dioxide fog, distances, and suggests an idea and uneven reality forced together.

Iñárritu’s movies often work like feats of casting, rather than actors directed as part of an ensemble. Here, the main performances are a mess. DiCaprio, who, after a bear attack, is reduced to a hoarse whisper, bouts of coughing, and teeth-grit moans and yells, is reduced to so many calamities (added to the movie, but absent in the book, are the traditional ride over the waterfall and tumble, with horse, over a cliff) that his dogged endurance suggests a Monty Python skit rather than a Jack London tale (on this last note: no matter how many deaths in this film, none of them acquires the quiet hopelessness of Liam Neeson talking a passenger through his last seconds in The Grey). Hardy, meanwhile, given Deadwood-like profanity and bellowing with a Jeff Bridges drawl, recites several portentious monologues and glares, twitches, and taps his fingers in a way that suggests he’s both narcissistically unaware of any other human on the earth (or in the cast) and completely unbelievable as a man anyone would trust, even at the enlistment table. The grounded, supporting performances of Domhnall Gleeson (a skeptic leader) and Will Poulter (young, unproven, guilt-stricken) look golden by comparison.

Iñárritu’s macho-survivalist attitude, with its allusion to tragedies and lip service to revenge not being that great in the end, begs for attention. There’s a bit of the expensive curio about it: an extreme sports competition that can, when asked, call itself a wilderness survival story, with occasional breaks for a Calgary tourism commercial (the lakes, the forests, the ice-covered vista views!) It’s worth noting that, less than a year after Birdman, another movie about an absent parent, reaching for artistic success like a fool, killing off contacts to revise a public identity, but far superior in its mastery of tone and performance, appeared in theatres: Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash. Iñárritu’s subjects are not unique. Perhaps, before long, there will be another story of North American winter violence of the 19th century, and it will be done with a sense of suprising imagination, pushing The Revenant back into the past where it will be, with any luck, forgotten.