There is little doubt that Leonardo DiCaprio deserves an Oscar. Whether he does for The Revenant is a whole other question. Having suffered through terrible cold, eating raw bison meat, and climbing inside a horse carcass for the sake of the film, the actor’s dedication has made headlines. DiCaprio gets all the points for effort. But does he earn them for performance?
1823. After fleeing an attack by a Native American tribe, fur trapper and expedition guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is hideously mauled by a bear. Unlikely to survive, fellow trappers Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) are ordered to wait for him to die and give him a proper burial. When Glass’ continued survival threatens his own, Fitzgerald leaves the wounded Glass for dead, killing his teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) in the process. With nothing else to live for, Glass fights to survive in the depths of winter, with no weapons, no food, and no hope, driven only by a thirst for vengeance.
The Revenant is first and foremost a story of ‘man against nature’: a desperate cry of life over death, alone in the wild. The power of Iñarittu and Mark L. Smith’s script lies in how deftly it shows the truth of this for each of the film’s characters, even beyond Hugh Glass’ heart-wrenching battle. The French, the various Native American tribes, the fur trappers: all are trying to eke a living out of a harsh environment, protect their territory and their lives. When a sudden arrow, a bullet, or a fall can mean the end of it all, it’s even difficult to blame villain Fitzgerald for his abhorrent selfishness.
This nuance is brilliant – but the story loses out on emotional stakes. There are few moments building up Glass’ relationship with his son, so his death, and the quest for revenge, loses emotional poignancy. Glass’ only other attachment is his long-dead wife, who appears via Terence Malick style dream sequences. Flashbacks, rather than hazy visions, might have allowed audiences to better empathise with his grief. As a result, the dominating emotions are anxiety and disgust – at the gore, the freezing temperatures, the long dark nights and the repulsive range of food Glass consumes. Sometimes Iñarittu goes over the top: the final scene is so awfully bloody that it provokes laughs.
DiCaprio is, as usual, brilliant. Yet, the film doesn’t allow him to do more than pained expressions, silent rage, and a whole lot of heavy breathing (his character can’t quite speak for much for the film). He isn’t given the opportunity to showcase his range in quite the same way as, say, The Wolf of Wall Street or Blood Diamond. DiCaprio certainly deserves his acting Oscar, yet it feels like he should have been handed one for a previous performance, rather than for The Revenant. Hardy as the Fitzgerald is a chilling double-face of cruelty and faux-sympathy. Though his accent briefly wavers, he makes for a potent villain, yet it’s a pity that we never fully grasp his motivation.
Despite the plot’s shortcomings, The Revenant is an extraordinary technical achievement. The difficulty of its shoot is already becoming industry legend (one worker described it as “living hell”). Iñarittu insisted on authenticity, filming everything on location. This pays off: the images look sumptuous. Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki flawlessly captures the awing beauty and cruelty of the snow-capped landscape. Iñarittu directs vividly, using his signature long takes for battle scenes. At other times his camera underlines DiCaprio’s smallness against the wild, showing him as a small speck progressing across a snowy plain. The spare score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto drives up a grim tension all the way to the film’s conclusion.
Following promising Academy Award nominations and a positive buzz,The Revenant is poised for award success. Alejandro González Iñárittu’s film is a masterful technical achievement, showcasing awing cinematography, skilled direction, and solid acting performances. Yet, for all this, it lacks an emotional grip, which keeps it from being an instant classic.
The Revenant is in UK cinemas nationwide now.