This is my first movie review. It may well be my last.
I’m not a huge movie buff. At most I see maybe a half dozen movies per year in the theater because I’m too cheap to pay the $11+ for a box office ticket. I’m content to wait until films are released to the ‘after market’ when I can watch them on DirecTV for half the price and eat popcorn that costs a fraction of what the theater concessions demand. That said, occasionally a movie beckons me to crawl out of my hole and watch it on the big screen.
When I first learned of the movie’s forthcoming release it was recommended that I first read the book (The Revenant, by Michael Punke), which I did. That was my first mistake because the book was excellent, and it set a very high bar for my movie expectations. My second mistake was in thinking (hoping) the film would be much more like the book than it was. Like nearly all films based on books, The Revenant took liberties and strayed considerably from the author’s storyline.
I wished it hadn’t.
When The Revenant hit local theaters on January 9th I was there for it, with two amigos who, like me, rather enjoy this period in American history. The first half of the 19th century was a time of great exploration and adventure (much to the dismay of the native Americans), when men were men and not only did they hold fish out of the water, they ate them raw (at least that happens inThe Revenant). It was a raw time during which men who ventured into the wilderness, if they survived, did so only while suffering great hardships—and they did it by choice. At one point early in the movie I leaned toward one of my buddies and whispered, “Man, we’re pussies.” By comparison to the mountain men, and frankly anyone living outside of the established East coast cities during the 1800’s, we modern day Americans are soft and weak. Neither thick beard nor all the Filson plaid in Seattle will make you into a fraction of the man that was a fur trapper circa 1823.
The director did a fine job of visually portraying the reality that must have been the life in the Rocky Mountains during that era. As I’ve driven through the Rockies, en route to and from fishing trips to Montana during the summer months, I’ve often paused to consider the immense ruggedness from the comfort of my vehicle and wondered what life was like for the early explorers though that country. Turn back the hands of time nearly 200 years. Strip yourself of everything you need to survive save for a set of animal hide clothes, a knife and a temperamental, inefficient flintlock rifle. Change the season so that it’s the middle of winter. Your buckskin leggings and moccasins are drenched from setting beaver traps in an ice-cold river. You’re probably half-starved and living in fear for your life during every waking moment (and also while you sleep). The brutality of the weather and harsh conditions shone through bright and clear in the film. The good old days? While it may be romantic to think so, I dunno about that.
Despite an opening scene as intense as that in Saving Private Ryan, the bulk of The Revenant was very slow. Certainly there were moments of excitement (like when the grizzly bear tears Hugh Glass to shreds), but mostly the film crawled along at a snail’s pace, not unlike Leonardo Dicaprio’s character did as he dragged his tattered and broken body across the frozen land. Fortunately the film ended with a flurry of action in which Glass is engaged in a hand-to-hand battle with the man he’d been pursuing for the majority of the film, John Fitzgerald (played brilliantly by Tom Hardy). In the final skirmish Glass wields a hatchet against his adversary’s Bowie knife. There’s plenty of blood spilled on the snow in the end to leave you exhilarated, if you like that sort of thing (which I do as long as it doesn’t involve me).
Sandwiched between the nail-biting opening scene and the dramatic final battle was too much time during which to wonder why the film didn’t follow the book more closely. While the cinematography was excellent, there were strange scenes that added no value to the film and left me scratching my head. Hugh Glass has a few spirit visions of his deceased Pawnee wife that seemed out of place and, quite frankly, a bit strange. Another scene that caused my eyes to roll was when Glass and a lone Pawnee man where sharing a camp. Light snow begins to fall and the Pawnee sticks out his tongue to catch flakes. He looks toward Glass, who looks awkwardly back. Then Dicaprio’s character sticks his tongue out to catch a few flakes. What was the point of this random, light-hearted scene? It was a deathly cold night in the middle of winter. Glass was still suffering horribly from his wounds and there was a reason the lone Pawnee man was alone (he had clearly suffered great losses of his own). Neither of them would have been in any mood for such silliness. Wasn’t it just enough that they shared a campfire? It was weird.
The film, and Dicaprio, won Golden Globe Awards. There’s been talk that this is Dicaprio’s shot at an Oscar. I don’t quite agree. The character of Hugh Glass speaks relatively few lines throughout the entirety of the film, and a considerable portion of that comes by way of muffled grunts through a throat torn open by the bear. I don’t see that it was a particularly difficult role to play, and quite frankly I felt Leonardo was the wrong actor for the part.
Remember, the real mountain men of the 1800’s were rough-cut badasses. Even with a scraggly beard and a buffalo robe I don’t think of Leonardo Dicaprio as being particularly rugged, and certainly not badass. Tom Hardy (who played John Fitzgerald) was rugged and badass—I’d rather have seen him in the lead role. Hardy’s character was also missing most of his scalp from an run-in with a hostile native earlier in his life. In the book, Glass lost most of his scalp to the griz attack. Leo’s character kept his hair in the film. The loss of his scalp would have added considerable (and much needed) grit to his role.
The book is clearly about one man’s desperate struggle to survive as he crawls some 200 miles to a fur trading post where he regains his strength, and some much-needed supplies, before turning around and resuming his quest for revenge upon the men to left him for dead. In the film, Glass’s struggle is nowhere near as evident. For starters, he seems to recover from his grave wounds too quickly and I get the sense that he suffered neither as much nor ventured as far as the book indicated. Nearly the entire film takes place while there’s snow on the ground. It’s my expert opinion that had the movie begun during the warm, golden days of Fall, and moved toward winter, the passage of time would have been more evident and dramatic. Glass’s journey (and suffering), could have been made out to be much greater without adding length to the movie (because the weird spiritual stuff could have been omitted). Again, maybe I’m being a bit hard on the film for wishing it would have been more like the book.
So be it.
Was it a good film? Yes. Was it a great film? No, but it could have been. My advice to you is read the book AFTER you’ve seen the movie, otherwise you’re likely to be disappointed, like me.
Or maybe not. This is just my opinion. The film, and Dicaprio, will probably earn Oscars. I hope, at least, Tom Hardy also wins for Supporting Actor.