Leonard DiCaprio ranks as one of the all-time great actors to not be honored by the Academy. Judging by his choice of roles, Leo really wants that Oscar on his mantle. Practically every role he takes on is destined to be in the awards conversation by year’s end – hoping, praying that this will be the time that he takes home Oscar glory. Leonard DiCaprio’s latest brazen attempt to woo Oscar voters is to place himself in the gauntlet of torturing himself for his craft. This time, teaming with Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu, DiCaprio filmed The Revenant under what he’s described as the toughest conditions he’s ever encountered on a movie set. After all, the Academy loves a grueling or transformative performance – “This should do it,” I’m sure the actor thought. Sadly, though, The Revenant is not a great movie, even though DiCaprio gives an assured performance. It’s a technical marvel that rings hollow thematically, and likely the only statue the film will receive is for the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki.
In the 1820s, along the western frontier, a trapping expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is under attack by the local Cree Tribe, the white men suspected of kidnapping the chief’s daughter. Those that could survive grabbed what pelts they could and made their way down the river, fleeing the arrows and torches that took the lives of 33 others. The navigator on the expedition, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), urges the Captain to abandon the river and make their way through the treacherous wilderness to best avoid running into their attackers again, much to the chagrin of the greedy and duplicitous Finnegan (Tom Hardy). But when Hugh is attacked (not raped) by a bear, the Captain pays Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) to stay with Hugh and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). But Fitzgerald’s selfishness and greed lead him to lie that the Cree are near and that Hugh is all but dead, leaving with Bridger as Hugh lays in the snow dying. Wounded in the frozen elements, Hugh Glass must fight his way back towards civilization, dodging the Cree and other deadly forces along the way to take his vengeance upon Fitzgerald.
Early on with The Revenant, the story is gripping as these traders are forced to flee in a hail of arrows and torches. It unfolds in long takes and contains a fierce brutality as everyone on the screen is plunged into the depths of violence. When Hugh Glass is attacked (again, not raped) by the bear, it’s uncomfortable and brutal. It’s gorgeous in its composition and harrowing in its execution. However, once past the bear attack there’s nowhere else for The Revenant to go besides a standard revenge tale. There are no larger themes about the quest for vengeance, nor is there any depth to the characters driven by greed or blood lust. Never at any point does The Revenant find anything larger to earn its two and a half hour running time. It basically boils down to a lengthy excursion of beautifully shot brutality that slowly descends into banality.
Much of the talk surrounding The Revenant will be about Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar chances. Unless Oscar voters are prone to vote for Leo merely because he tortured himself for this role, there’s not much else to the role except the masochism. With limited dialogue to his character’s injuries, Leo is really just subjected to hours of grunts and crawling – neither are nearly as effective as his Quaalude-inspired scene in Wolf of Wall Street, which with its blend of physical and comedic acting should’ve netted Leo his first Oscar. It certainly doesn’t help Leo’s chances that he’s outshined in the film by Tom Hardy. It’s impossible to wonder just how much more interesting The Revenant as a whole would be had it focused on Hardy’s Fitzgerald. Missing part of his scalp from a violent encounter with Native Americans years prior, Fitzgerald has a fascinating backstory and is the much more well-rounded character. Wild-eyed with a thick frontier’s accent, Hardy undoubtedly gives the best performance in The Revenant.
Because this is a film that’s made almost entirely for Oscar consideration, its real hope in taking home some statuettes fall squarely on the shoulders of Emmanuel Lubezki. Using only natural lighting, Lubezki’s cinematography is the standout achievement of the film. If only the script by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith was able to find some thematic depth in its tale of survival and revenge in adapting Michael Punke’s novel. Iñárritu and company have crafted a story about men (and just men) so entrenched in their beliefs yet never makes them even doubt the veracity of their separate quests. This is just a lengthy excursion into masculine brutality that never bothers to look for the moral nuances beyond the surface.
Beyond its beautiful cinematography and the torturous experience for its actors, there’s not much to The Revenant. It may draw comparisons to the works of Werner Herzog or Terrance Malick yet lacks the philosophical edge that those filmmakers bring to their works. The Revenant isn’t a meditation on violence, colonialism, or any other larger themes. It exists so that its participants can tell the press about the harrowing experience of crafting the film, hoping it will sway Oscar votes in their direction. Alejandro González Iñárritu is the premiere manufacturer of Fabergé eggs in Hollywood. He crafts these ornate objects that are hollow and fragile, and The Revenant is no different.