It was exactly one year ago that Birdman was shoring up its (to these eyes, somewhat shaky) claims to the Best Picture Oscar, an award that seemed to acknowledge a new-found confidence in Alejandro González Iñárritu's filmmaking after the lacklustre one-two of Babel and 21 Grams. Iñárritu must have very quickly swapped the tuxedo for Gore-Tex to saddle up on the set of The Revenant, which in some ways feels like a continuation of the Birdman project. Having enjoyed some success thrashing out an immersive, spontaneous-seeming (yet surely hyper-rehearsed) camera style within the earlier film's confined space, Iñárritu here applies the same technique to the great outdoors, and strives - possibly a bit too hard - to make the kind of historical epic that is supposed to win Best Picture nominations.
From Broadway, then, we're transported to the 19th century American frontier, and introduced to a bunch of grizzled Davy Crocketts, pelt-gathering proto-capitalists led by the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson, with Tom Hardy as his right-hand man, and little Leo DiCaprio as their scout. The party will be disrupted from their daily business of hunting, skinning and grousing when their camp falls under attack from natives in search of one of their own - payback, perhaps, for The Searchers or The Ridiculous 6. The expedition soon veers off-course, redirected literally up creek without paddle, whereupon everybody falls subject to the predations of not just the locals, but the local wildlife, the cold, and - most terrifyingly of all - one another.
As before, the Iñárritu technique is to plant the camera bang in the middle of a fully realised, mostly non-virtual environment, and by turning it 360°, put the viewer in the epicentre of an Injun attack, or a knife fight, or an especially desolate stretch of wilderness. At a time when so many productions are beholden to costcutting blue- or green-screen technology for their spectacle, there are advantages to this big-picture approach. The carnage, when it comes, comes out of nowhere, and develops in a manner as realistic as it is horrific.
Even in its quieter stretches, The Revenant holds the eye and the attention, elevated by the extraordinary work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, here finding as much wonder and peril on two-dimensional earth as he did within the 3D space of Gravity. No director of photographer has ever shot trees with a greater sense of awe; Lubezki bestows upon them a permanency, dignity and stature conspicuously lacking from the petty, pathetic little men cowering in their shade.
Elsewhere in these 150 minutes, you can feel Iñárritu trying to impose himself upon us just a little too much. (This is an awards season of bizarre extremes: The Revenant contrasts entirely with the self-effacement of Spotlight, its biggest rival for the top prize.) The much-vaunted bear attack certainly comes as a surprise on screen, but it gets more ridiculous and absurd the longer it drags on - just another of the grabby setpieces in the film's arsenal, and one that lacks the insidious chill of the comparable ambushes in Deliverance: a massive CG grizzly is nothing compared to the evil that men do.
Time and again, you can feel The Revenant grunting, flexing its muscles and generally making a big show of circling around editorial points that are fundamentally simple when not outright contentious. Yet again, a major Hollywood studio has contrived to package a 90-minute B-feature (not a million miles away, in this instance, from Joe Carnahan's underrated The Grey), complete with cat-and-mouse finale, into something almost twice the length. You could argue this is excellent VFM, but over the long haul, The Revenant has nothing more profound or accurate to say for itself than a sign placed in the hands of one hanging victim: "We Are All Savages".
For all these wild swipes, what actually keeps us watching are those scratching out something worthwhile at the movie's fringes - and if one thing has kept Iñárritu's work from coming to seem like a Steadicam showreel, it's his investment in actors. I think I'd rather the Oscar went to Matt Damon's cheery endurance in The Martian than DiCaprio's pinch-faced, self-cauterising scowling: less a fully-fleshed out characterisation than an ambulant gripe, and one that seems inseparable from the film's palpable desperation to prove itself.
Yet Iñárritu has a perversely winning double act to cut away to: Tom Hardy, spitting and muttering as the kind of resentful blue-collar lug who'd do anything to get himself out of a hole (including burying others alive in it), and Will Poulter, rescued from YA inanity, whose innocent is leagues above the comparable Tom Holland character in In The Heart of the Sea [God, remember that one? - Ed.], not least as this scenario gives him so much more wondrous and terrifying experience to take in.
The Revenant may benefit from opening in the wake of The Hateful Eight, allowing its audience to better appreciate Iñárritu's attempts to engage and wrestle with the murderous physicality of this world: it's far from all talk, rather an often vivid illustration of what happens when conditions - for work, for life - turn bad. And yet the two films share the same bleak and ungenerous opinion of the world and its inhabitants - the kind of sour misanthropy that a cranky 90-minute programmer could get away with, but which you instinctively find yourself backing away from in a 150-minute prestige picture; its spirit is as narrow as its horizons are wide.
That The Revenant is cinema of heft is undeniable, but I think I'll cling to the quiet optimism of the 80-minute Slow West going forwards, and hope the Academy does itself and the world a favour by rewarding the effortless virtuosity of Inside Out on the big night - a film that had altogether more complex and interesting points to convey about human nature, and considerably more in the way of jokes.
(MovieMail, January 2016)
The Revenant screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.