Why The Revenant Was Not Very Good

Last night, I saw The Revenant. I was really looking forward to the movie. It was a total disappointment. Here’s why.

Note: This review contains mild spoilers.

I was bored about 5 minutes into the movie and stayed bored for most of the remaining two and a half hours, barring a few sequences (the last 10 minutes or so are pretty good.)

It’s not that I don’t like long movies. But I’ve always believed what Roger Ebert so perfectly put into words: “No good film is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” This one was definitely way too long.

At no point did I actually feel like I was on this unbelievable journey of survival. The movie kept me at a remove the entire time, as though I was experiencing it through an intellectual filter. This had the effect of eliminating all the stakes. I wasn’t shocked or thrilled or on the edge of my seat. I was fidgeting and looking at my watch and thinking about what we’re doing this weekend.

The primary issue was that the director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, made terrible choices about what to do with the camera. Sure, the setting was beautiful. At times it felt like a pretty good nature documentary. But that’s not the same thing as a narrative feature film.

In almost every shot, the camera is restlessly moving around, pushing in and out of extreme close-ups. From time to time, we were shown Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s subjective point of view, with water splashing on the lens and such. (Which makes no sense, because he wasn’t wearing glasses or looking through a camera.)

I suspect this was all meant to make the viewer feel like she was right in there with the characters. For me, it had the opposite effect. The camera called attention to itself and took me out of the movie. The entire time.

This may have been meant to be a bold stylistic choice or at least a directorial flourish. Instead, it betrayed a lack of confidence. It seemed like the director just didn’t know where to put the camera, so he moved it around a lot. Many directors do this nowadays. In almost all cases, I think it’s a bad choice.

There were other problems. The acting was generally good (although I felt this was one of DiCaprio’s weakest performances, but, sure, give him an Oscar, who cares). But the characters were badly sketched out. At no point did I believe in the central relationship between DiCaprio’s character and his son. The French were nothing but a group of “bad guys.” And, most jarringly, the Native American characters were treated like magical earth spirits rather than actual people with complex motivations. This struck me as, while not quite racist, certainly lazy.

The central conflict of the movie can be articulated as follows: most white men think Native Americans are subhuman savages. But a few really special white men can see that they’re extraordinary creatures who are more in touch with nature and stuff. Aren’t those white men great?

Neither approach acknowledges these people as regular human beings. And in any case, do we need to see any more movies about Native Americans interpreted through the eyes of mostly bad and a few heroic white men? Enough of that already.

Time to run through a few other issues I had with the movie.

Probably the most jarring scene was the one with the fake-looking digital herd of buffalo, one of which is being taken down by some fake-looking digital wolves. Given that this is a movie that works so hard to show that it’s a real location with real things happening in the real world, I was shocked that the filmmakers resorted to cheap digital effects for this one scene.

The pointless dreamy flashbacks and the few moments of “magical realism” also took me out of the narrative. I’m the first to admit that dreamy flashbacks and magical realism just aren’t my thing. Some people like those elements. That’s fine. I can’t get into Jethro Tull because I don’t like the sound of the flute as a lead instrument in rock music. But I guess that’s my problem, not yours.

I also could have done without the ham-fisted religious overtones. Suddenly we’re in a flashback where DiCaprio & Son are walking through the ruins of a Spanish missionary church. Symbolism Alert. Never forget, viewers, you’re not watching an entertaining movie where a frontiersman fights a bear, you’re watching a Masterpiece by a Very Serious Director with Something to Say.

No thanks.

The Revenant could have been a good, exciting, fast-moving action movie about badass people doing crazy stuff in an extreme environment. What we got instead was a pretentious, boring waste of time. Not every movie has to be meaningful and important. And not every story calls for that approach.

OK, the bear was pretty cool, though.