Leo pleads with the Academy.
Image source. Copyright 20th Century Fox, 2015.
How far are people willing to go to get an Oscar? Colin Firth took on a stutter. Eddie Redmayne took on a life-altering disability. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, Leo DiCaprio shows that you can never want that little golden statuette enough. There’s no kind of torture he doesn’t put himself through in this movie, whether that means being mauled over by a bear, freezing to death in the wilderness, or having a knife stabbed through his hand. You’ll be awed by many aspects of The Revenant, but most of all by how Leo managed to make it through the filming process in one piece.
Like another Western movie that’s up for consideration at the Oscars, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a story of revenge. Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s latest violent epic, however, Iñárritu’s tale of brutal misery finds its footing not in an ensemble of rage, but the physical, spiritual struggles of one lonely man. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) makes a living as a fur-trapper in the outskirts of the freezing Northwest. The job ain’t easy; the wilderness breathes of cold indifference, and the possibility of an ambush by unfriendly Indians always looms over Glass and his gang. But look at the way he slides through the forest, the gentle but deadly way he treads over roots and corners his prey. This is the skill of someone who knows mud patches and trunks like the alphabet, the maniacal zeal of a man whose life’s only meaning comes from the game he finds and kills in this remote little world. This icy, impersonal land, we learn quickly, is Glass’ home. His only tender spot comes with Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his mixed-race son whose mother now only appears as a haunting, fleeting illusion in Glass’ worst nightmares.
The chilling message The Revenant imparts is that not even a man like Glass is exempt from nature’s cold, unconcerned wrath. When Glass almost dies after being assailed by a grizzly bear (the scene that’s been played ad nauseum on the Web), the captain orders a few men to stay back and see that Glass dies a proper death. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Glass’ surly, racist companion, agrees to stay alongside Hawk and the naive Jim (Will Poulter). But Fitzgerald, greedy and “survival of the fittest” to the core, loses patience rapidly. He attempts to choke a barely-conscious Glass to death, kills Hawk when Hawk tries to stop him, and finally ends up abandoning Glass for human civilization. Glass is now completely paralyzed in the middle of the woods, vulnerable to predators, Indians, and debilitating cold. Plus the only guy in a 100-mile radius.
The interesting thing about the rest of The Revenant is how visceral and detached it is all at once. Iñárritu intersperses majestic shots of beautiful but piercingly cold northern landscapes with close-up scenes of DiCaprio’s character struggling to survive in the wilderness. The panoramic shots are masterful, the perfect visual metaphor for nature’s vast, mighty, and cruel indifference to the suffering and vendetta of one little man. The visceral shots, on the other hand, will shock you with their flat-out brutality and closeness; at some points, DiCaprio’s blood and breath actually stain the camera lens. Iñárritu apparently filmed most of this film on location in northern Canada and Alaska, so the physical torment these characters go through as they struggle to thrive in the bitter cold is not just an act. Neorealism at its most searingly physical never got as upfront as this.
DiCaprio’s performance is pretty good, although it relies heavily on brute, physical force for its gut-wrenching impact. In the extreme environmental circumstances to which Iñárritu subjected his cast, any decent actor would look as mad and depraved as DiCaprio ends up looking. And yet, DiCaprio does carry a kind of vengeful dignity about him throughout the movie; you do feel his motivations and stubborn desire to beat all the odds. The best part of this movie, however, is definitely Emmanuel Lubezki’s jaw-dropping cinematography and the sobering overall atmosphere Iñárritu creates with it. No man’s land this universe of desolation truly is; even the supposedly villainous acts of Hardy’s character look reasonable when you realize he, like any other man, just wants to survive. DiCaprio’s odyssey from hell and back to kill Hardy feels less glorious when you see him at the end bloody-handed, wounds oozing, abandoned by all, aimless with nothing left to hunt. Iñárritu throws some hard twists on our favorite theme of righteous revenge; the strutting and fretting vanishes into dust once the stage light turns away. It’s a harsh truth, but illuminating to behold.
For the record, DiCaprio is now all but set to win the Oscar, given his recent sweep of the pre-Oscar awards circuit. It’s not what this movie ought to be recognized for, but it’s not the worst decision the Academy will have made. Because in the end, The Revenant is a movie that does lives up to all the buzz it’s generated. Who knew watching a man grunt, shove, and scream to himself for over an hour would be so fascinating and enlightening? Now we’ll just have to wait four weeks to find out if Leo thinks the pain was worth it.
The Revenant (2015)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy
Running Time: 156 minutes
Produced by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Arnon Milchan, James Skotchdopole, David Kanter, Keith Redmon, Steve Golin
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mark Smith
Based on the 2002 Michael Punke novel The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge.