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'The Revenant' is nothing but Leonardo DiCaprio suffering for his art

A manly film about manly survival, the latest from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Birdman") is impressive but shallow, even anticlimactic.
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    Tom Hardy is an unscrupulous fur trapper who makes the mistake of not making sure |Twentieth Century Fox

‘The Revenant’
Director:
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Stars: Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Hardy
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

“The Revenant” is a harsh film that was hard to make, and it never wants you, over its 156 minutes, to forget it. If filmmaking can be macho, here it is at its man-manliest. It took 10 years to make, nearly a year of that to shoot. It boasts a serious former “Tiger Beat” staple who wants his Oscar already, tearing through the wilderness to get it. It’s told entirely in difficult-looking long takes by the cinematographer who does it best: Emmanuel Lubezki, who minted himself as a rock star with the you-are-there jaunts through a hectic battle zone in “Children of Men.” A small chunk of “The Revenant” is versions of that scene, and if that’s not masculine enough, there’s also Tom Hardy somehow pronouncing even fewer consonants than usual.

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It’s an impressive technical achievement, and only a fool could completely resist its rough-and-tumble, aggressive-beardo charms. At heart it’s a super-sized, roided-up version of “The Naked Prey,” Cornel Wilde’s minimalist boy’s adventure about an American, clad only in a loincloth, trying to navigate the wilderness of Africa en route to safety. Leonardo DiCaprio plays real-life survivalist Hugh Glass, though he might as well been credited, pretentiously, as “Man.” A fur trapper, he gets mauled on by a bear, naturally for a good five screen minutes. He’s then left for dead by Hardy’s John Fitzgerald, the most inhumane of his colleagues. He vows to make it back, even if that means crawling on his mucked-up legs, then give his failed murderer what’s comin’.

As wielded by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose “Birdman” at least had a puckish sense of humor, “The Revenant” is a blunt object, and as most blunt objects it gets the job done with questionable force. DiCaprio grunts most of his performance as he scales mountains, treks across snowy plains, wades through icy water while dodging gunshots and arrows. Lubezki’s camera is tactile, right along with him, and we’re always aware of how much DiCaprio and the crew are suffering for their art. It’s practically a documentary of its own making, with some of the seams left in and movie magic reduced to men (and one woman character, who’s of course raped) doing their thing.

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What it isn’t is much more than that, and it joins recent films as “Beasts of No Nation” and “Son of Saul” that turn real suffering into Extreme Cinema — feats of filmmaking strength that can feel shallow and one-note. Of these, “Son of Saul” is the best, not just because it’s a sincerely anguished film about the Holocaust but because the camerawork does more than just get dirty. It connects with the material and involves the audience by making them do visual work. It doesn’t just make us marvel, as “The Revenant” does, at how tough such-and-such a shot was to pull off.

“The Revenant” might have even gotten away with too, it by being less: having a shorter running time, fewer look-at-this-sweat powerhouse shots, or maybe just being more pared down to the nub. It might have also been better as more, with a storyline that’s not just a thin tale of survival and revenge that ends in a fat, indifferent anticlimax. It even has a look-at-me-ma final shot of ambiguity, though there’s really only one way to read it: as cast and crew staring you down and bitterly asking, “Are you not entertained?"

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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