At this point, to mention Oscar chances in the same breath as discussing a new Leonardo DiCaprio film is akin to saying Macbeth in a theater. So stand up, spin around in three circles, walk outside, and get invited back in because it goes without saying: The Revenant is DiCaprio’s Oscar film.
Written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, last year’s Oscar-winning Best Director for Birdman, The Revenant is based on Michael Punke’s fictionalized account of the incredible true story of American fur trapper Hugh Glass, who is played by an impressively-bearded DiCaprio. Glass, a navigation expert on a crew of American trappers that keeps getting decimated by attacks from a local Native American tribe funded by rival French trappers, is unsurprisingly the crew’s best asset — a fact that serves as the only reason his half-Native American son Hawk is allowed to be a part of the dangerous expedition. Haunted by the image of seeing his wife murdered in a raid on her Pawnee tribe, Glass now expends few words; those he does, however, keep getting him caught in the crosshairs of John Fitzgerald, a fellow trapper played to maniacal perfection by Tom Hardy who disagrees with the route Glass wants to take to get to Yellowstone.
After being mauled by a bear (those reports of bear rape were blessedly false) he managed to fight off and kill, a nearly immobile Glass is left in the care of Hawk, another crewmember named Bridger, and a begrudging Fitzgerald, who only volunteers after hearing there’s a $300 reward for doing so. The trio receives strict instructions to keep Glass alive, or give him a proper burial if he passes, which naturally ends in Fitzgerald murdering Hawk, leaving Glass for dead, and cowing Bridger into going along with the plan. And thus begins what is officially the most harrowing survival tale I’ve ever seen; despite sub-zero winter temperatures, Glass recuperates and begins the dangerous slow crawl back to his men. He’s motivated by one thing and one thing only: revenge.
The script for The Revenant — surprisingly short, given that the majority of the two and a half hour movie features Glass solo, after the bear ripped out half his throat — has been floating around Hollywood for nearly a decade, with various directors attached at various points, and both Samuel L. Jackson and Christian Bale attached to play Glass. But for a script so sparse, the magic lies entirely in the directing. Shot in Calgary, the film is all sweeping wide shots — trees stretching endlessly upwards, panoramic mountain ranges blanketed in ice — that do nothing to sugarcoat the enormity of the environment. Despite a few heavy-handed scenes of DiCaprio picturing his wife and son in a sunlit meadow, the vastness of Glass’ terrain is inescapable.
The pacing of the film also pulls zero punches. Within the first five minutes of the film, over thirty men are murdered in one of the more realistically gruesome fight scenes ever recorded. The bulk of the movie is spent seeing Glass survive one insanely dangerous situation after another as he makes his way towards the base camp – setbacks such as being chased off cliffs by Native Americans, being pushed through miles of river rapids without any protective gear, having arrows shot at his head from trees on high – which can, at times, grow weary. (This is the movie that should have been called A Million Ways to Die in the West.) But the unyielding attacks on Glass are the reason this film is unlike any other survival film of its kind. Much like Glass’ journey, there are no breaks, no feel-good victories to allow time to catch your breath.
The film isn’t without some drawbacks, of course. Even before knowing Bale was attached at one point to play Glass, I couldn’t help but wonder if DiCaprio’s role – and the way he played Glass as a man broken by the world and seeking revenge – could have been played by any other actor of similar Method mettle. Even after seeing the film in full, I still can’t shake the fact that Bale, among others, could have likely stepped into Glass’ snowshoes just as well. DiCaprio’s performance, though exceptional, also felt one-note at times. The lack of character development in favor of dropping the viewer right into each character’s world view was a smart choice, but didn’t leave much room for Hardy or DiCaprio to layer their roles further.Much of the film’s most gripping moments came from plot rather than acting, which left a sense of feeling the tail wagging the dog. Then again, any man willing to sleep inside a horse carcass in the name of art can’t really be questioned over his artistic abilities.
Also helping DiCaprio is that Oscar competition this year isn’t as stiff. Hardy still remains the front-runner for Mad Max: Fury Road, and Jordan’s meaty turn as Adonis Johnson in Creed is a worthy foe, but the race is fairly open outside of it. Matt Damon’s take on The Martian was enthusiastic and will likely earn a nod, but even Damon knows he essentially played Matt Damon Stuck on Mars, which isn’t so much a role as a way of life on a different planet. Hardy’s Fitzgerald in this film is diabolically excellent, but as he can only be nominated for one film in a category, Mad Max will, of course, be the way to go. Which leaves the race wide open for DiCaprio, who spoke far less in this movie than any of his potential competitors.
The Revenant is a survival story, but to call it that would be to dismiss everything that differentiates it upwards into a class of its own. It’s not just a master class in acting, or even directing; it’s a call to arms for inventive filmmaking, exceptional location scouting, wonderful camera work. And if losing his throat to a bear earns Leo that Oscar? All that revenge would have been more than worth it.
Photos by 20th Century Fox