Leonardo DiCaprio wants an Oscar for Best Actor bad. In fact, there are hundreds of memes about his thirst for that little gold statue. But never have we seen an entire movie dedicated to the struggle that is his quest for Academy recognition. Until now, that is.
Honestly, I don’t know what The Revenant showcases more—”The Struggle of Leonardo DiCaprio” or director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu blowing his artistic load all over the Canadian landscape (where most of this movie was filmed since its wilderness looks more like the 1820s American frontier). We’ll discuss Iñárritu in a moment. Let’s focus on Leo first…
He went through hell to make this movie, no doubt. He crawled in dirt and snow, ate a bison liver, got mauled by a CGI bear (not raped), couldn’t shave, and nearly froze to death. And while he should be commended for out method-acting the grandmaster of method acting, Daniel Day Lewis, I don’t know if it was worth it.
Yes, DiCaprio’s offscreen commitment proved how far he was willing to go for his role in The Revenant, but his performance in the movie isn’t that extraordinary. I mean, his recent roles in The Wolf of Wall Street and Django Unchained required less of him physically, but they were better performances by far.
The Revenant has the right setup. A story of man vs. nature and survivalism lends itself to a nonverbal performance of inward reflection and loss of faith and humanity (In most cases, this type of role is harder than roles with more dialogue because so much more has to be shown through expressions and visual imagery). Yet DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass does little more than trudge around the beautiful landscape, seeking vengeance for his son’s death. It’s a shallow character arc we could see in practically any Western.
What disappoints me is that this role never makes a statement about what happens to a man when he’s left with nothing but himself in a land that wants to kill him at every turn (whether by natives, other frontiersman, climate, terrain, or predatory animals). Combining that with all of DiCaprio’s offscreen dedication is where he would’ve been the full-package Best Actor candidate.
You know who’s character does make that statement, though? Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald, the man who kills Glass’ son, leaves Glass for dead in the woods, and proceeds to screw over the other frontiersman whenever he can in order to survive.
Fitzgerald is easily the most complicated character in this movie. This is a shifty-eyed man constantly rationalizing his brutal actions (specifically, sacrificing the men around him) as a means of survival. Hell, he even has a whole speech about “killing God” just to demonstrate the cruelty of life and how the wilderness destroys all faith. He’s fascinating, and I believe Hardy should be getting more recognition than DiCaprio because his performance (and character) was much, much better.
Beyond the acting, this is a gorgeous film. Boring because it’s two and half hours of, as I said before, DiCaprio trudging around in the wilderness, but ultimately gorgeous. I keep saying to people who ask about it that it’s like looking at nature photos in an art gallery. That, of course, was the intent behind Iñárritu (who directed last year’s Best Picture, Birdman)’s determination to film during Canadian winter with natural light. And the effect is better than what could’ve been accomplished with a soundstage and CGI.
However, while I understand that this movie was Iñárritu’s passion project and chance to show off his artistic vision, I do not find his complete lack of concern for his cast and crew’s safety an example of good direction. Part of being a director is filming the best damn film possible. But the other part is taking care of the people under you. Sure, Leo was fine with putting himself in danger (because, hi, Oscar), but there were many on the crew who spoke out who were not. Iñárritu just sounds like an asshole.
All in all, I do think The Revenant is a film worth watching. It’s beautiful, brutal, and will definitely be a favorite for anyone who enjoys stories of the American frontier. And it also deserves praise for not painting Native Americans as evil or romanticizing their culture (The natives in this movie are just trying to survive like everyone else). But mostly, The Revenant is a bloated, agonizingly-long film that puts more time into showing off its director’s art and less of its lead actor’s performance.
The Revenant: B
You can listen to my review of The Revenant on “Pat & JT in the Morning” here (at 29:36).