by Ratnakar Tripathy
When I decided I have to make sure to see ‘The Revenant’, it was for two non-serious reasons that may appear laughable. First, I liked the word ‘revenant’ for its nice ring and its etymological depth. It means in French ‘to come back from the dead’ and is now likely to stay in English as a permanent resident. Second, I liked the premise of the storyline highlighted in the promos and the online posters that went something like ‘about a man left for dead after a bear attack in the wilderness’. These were messages promising some raw adventure, some straight confrontation between man and nature at its primal worst, what with the visuals causing a shiver with their stark snow laden landscape from Northern America. Add to it the betrayal by companions who find it convenient to assume the nearly dead as virtually so abandoning him to the elements. Let me clarify I did not decide to see this film because it is based on a true story. ‘Based on a true story’ is a phrase that puts me off as it sounds too much like a presumptuous publicity crutch for a series of supposedly historical facts arranged into otherwise a lame story.
The film had a spectacular opening. A large gang of fur-hunters gathered together somewhere in a bone-chilling icy white landscape that got into your marrows in no time. These were the tough frontiersmen in a direct arm wrestle with the cold north, trying to eke out a trade with huge risks. The risks become apparent within minutes of the start when the gang of men get lynched by a troupe of the native Indians. Equipped as they are with the primitive guns prevalent in the mid-19th century, the native archers pin them with utter ease, decimating most of the men. The rest somehow escape on a boat but lose their way. The only person who can guide them through the endless streams of melt water from the mountains and the indistinguishable, fractal series of craggy hills is Glass, the chief protagonist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a role that fetched him the first Oscar of his career. With this begins an adventure climaxing with a bear attack visually so real your toes wince repeatedly despite the cozy security of the theatre. And then the tossing and flinging of DiCaprio’s body by the savage bear seems to continue endlessly with a realism of the first hand kind. The camera far surpasses the human eyes of course in its ability to focus on every single tear and gash inflicted by the bear till you have had enough of the gore and wish to look away from the screen. This was the moment when I decided that I am perhaps in the wrong place. I was disgusted rather than impressed by the epic dimensions of the gory realism especially as Glass, the character played by DiCaprio and many others go through the same treatment – gashed, bleeding, torn into fine fragments of muscular fibres seen in close ups endlessly. The visuals repeatedly suggested unbearable levels of pain, extorting empathy out of you almost by force – after all, the cinema hall unlike the home screen or the laptop does not allow an easy escape. It is terrible feeling to leave a movie halfway, a bit like abandoning a meal however bad in mid course. So I waited for things to get better even though the neighbouring duo kept exchanging silly jokes and breaking into giggles to escape the weightiness of visual cruelty. Despite the subtitles they probably couldn’t get the raspy dialogues delivered in the heavy western accent and decided to put their own words in the mouths of the characters. Thus continued an endless adventure termed ‘epic’ by several reviewers and the promotional material.
Pitted against Glass, a man with total integrity and unshaking loyalty to basic human values in situations of great stress and absence of civic order is John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy who is the exact antipode – a selfish, sly, unscrupulous sob who must cheat and rob and kill just to remain true to his character. Fitzgerald crosses Glass’s path too often to be forgiven and as the story proceeds, one witnesses all of Glass’s angst and fury converge on one man – Fitzgerald. In fact towards the end as Glass finally buckles in with his countless wounds, stitched, reopened and restitched, you become aware that Glass is alive only because he must eliminate Fitzgerald before finding his final oblivion. Suddenly you drop from the epic heights to the levels of a petty revenge tale and a diminished frontiersman hero.
I looked right and left and behind in the dark to read the body language of the audience wondering if I was alone in my frustrations. I saw restive movements and other impatient gestures that suggested the film should now come to an end and daylight would be welcome. But the epic adventure continued and got downright tiresome. As a very telling sign as the credits and acknowledgements rolled on the screen I found the audience eager to escape. I saw a clear contrast here with some earlier movie experiences that were so satisfying that even as the names and credits flashed on the screen, the audience stuck to their seats, leaving the hall in great reluctance. As for DiCaprio’s acting, I have seen him do much better. In ‘The Revenant’, all he does is grit his teeth and bear unbearable pain and then pass on quite a bit of it to the audience.