Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, which will very likely win three of the four major awards at the Oscars this Sunday, is a dumb, gruesome, boring, macho slog that’s actively unpleasant to watch. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers notoriously proclaimed that The Revenant was not for “movie pussies,” a phrase that perfectly and unfortunately encapsulates the movie’s tone. I am always confused by people who confuse great films with ordeals to be suffered through, a category that seems to include a lot of academy voters. If you don’t enjoy enjoying movies, find another industry!
The Revenant was a myth before it was a film, in a number of senses, and it probably should have stayed one. Loosely based on the oft-retold, unreliable 19th-century real-life survival tale of Hugh Glass, The Revenant was a famously grueling production, shot in three different countries (the United States, Canada, and Argentina) amid unforgiving weather conditions, in part to accommodate its director’s insistence on using only natural light sources. The production went massively over budget, and rumors of on-set altercations swirled, leading many to wonder if The Revenant was destined to be Heaven’s Gate–level disaster for the 21st century, a career-ruining cautionary tale of excessive ambition and auteurist hubris.
It’s too bad it’s not: That would have made for a more interesting movie. The Revenant is better than morose Iñárritu dreck like 21 Grams and Biutiful, and it’s certainly better than last year’s Birdman, a preening, petulant mess about how difficult it is to make great art (as though Iñárritu’s own filmography wasn’t testament to this). Even the best thing about The Revenant is maddening: It is one of the most visually stunning studio films in recent memory, with long takes winding through dusk-dappled woods, seemingly impossible shots of men floating through whitewater rapids and horses falling off cliffs. (The extraordinary Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is poised to make history by winning his third straight Academy Award for this film, and the honor would be deserved.) All this useless beauty, in service of obscuring a lazy screenplay and aggressively dimensionless characters.
Lubezki is the preferred camera wizard for both Iñárritu and fellow countryman Alfonso Cuarón and has won Oscars working with both. The difference between the two—and it’s an important one!—is that Cuarón is a genius, while Iñárritu is a hack. Iñárritu makes films for the movie-going equivalent of what Gob, the magician brother from Arrested Development, refers to as “how’d-he-do-dat”s: people impressed by trickery who don’t bother to notice that said trickery isn’t performed in service of any ideas. Birdman was shot in a flamboyant, faux-single-take style that was impressive in a showy, obvious way, but to what ends? The technique added nothing to the film’s thematic cohesion or narrative invention; it merely distracted from how little of either the movie contained. Similarly, The Revenant’s visual inventiveness is spectacular but pointless; it’s a movie that’s only interesting when no humans are speaking or even on screen.
Especially not the human who is absolutely assured of winning an Oscar for his role. Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor whose dull performance in The Revenant offers none of the cerebral intensity of his work in The Departed and certainly none of his witty panache from The Wolf of Wall Street. (Is there a more humorless director than Iñárritu? Lars von Trier is Billy Wilder in comparison.) Among the rest of the film’s performances, Oscar-nominated Tom Hardy is predictably great, save for his tendency to deliver lines in a rushed mutter that’s often indecipherable. In fact, a tremendous amount of the lines spoken in this movie are difficult to understand, a significant problem that might have been a catastrophic one if the script were actually any good.
In its awards-season push, The Revenant, a movie that never bothered to figure out what it was about while people were writing, shooting, and editing it, has sought to position itself as a righteous memorial to the plunder and genocide perpetrated against indigenous North American people. The contention loosely holds up through the first third of the film—sure, an early scene where an Arikara leader lectures a trader about how white people have stolen his land and his animals is ham-fisted,but no worse than anything in seven-time Academy Award winner Dances With Wolves. But The Revenant doesn’t even keep its focus on this, and over the film’s final two hours native people are gradually reduced to tragically doomed, mute metaphors through which white people learn things. The sad irony of this movie’s treatment of native people isn’t that it ignores them—it’s that it’s initially fascinated by them and then palpably loses any interest. Depressingly, if there’s any element of The Revenant that can be declared “historically accurate,” it’s this.
The Revenant absolutely should not win Best Picture, which means it probably will. It is vastly, vastly inferior to The Big Short, The Martian, Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, and a whole lot of other films that weren’t even nominated. But there’s one that I keep coming back to. I refuse to believe that there is anyone—anyone—who has seen both The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road and can rationally argue that The Revenant is a better film. Fury Road is an actual masterpiece rather than a pretend one, and the conventional wisdom is that it won’t win Best Picture because it’s a “genre film,” and that conventional wisdom is almost certainly right.
But The Revenant is a genre film, too—several of them, in fact, and all of them inept. It is a “based-on-true-events” period piece that’s flagrantly slipshod with its history. It is a revenge film that features a long and pointless sequence of its protagonist catching snowflakes on his tongue. It is a survival film that doesn’t even bother with the procedural elements of survival. (How does Glass survive the fall off the cliff that kills his horse? How does Glass not die in the hole where they left him in the first place? These are never explained.) And as an action film, well, it’s just bad: The film’s climactic fight sequence goes for Paul Greengrass–style realism but just ends up being clumsy and incoherent, in part because everything to that point has been so relentlessly stylized.
The most frustrating thing about The Revenant is that there’s probably a good movie in there somewhere. A brutalist auteur like Werner Herzog might have turned its man vs. nature themes into something thoughtful, rather than the world’s most pretentious Epcot Center attraction. A sharp storyteller like Ryan Coogler would have streamlined the script’s listless and indulgent bloat, rather than accentuating it. A great action filmmaker like Kathryn Bigelow would have embraced the pulpiness at the heart of this tale rather than snobbishly trying to obscure it. But all of these things would take craft, and work. Iñárritu and his fans are only into difficulty if it’s the easy kind.