Every year or two — pretty much any year he makes a movie — talk starts again about Leonardo DiCaprio finally winning an Oscar. Like a slightly older Justin Timberlake, DiCaprio has gone from being an unfairly dismissed teen idol twenty years ago to one of the most fervently defended actors of modern cinema.
For DiCaprio to have given as many brilliant performances as he has by just his early forties is quite remarkable. And whatever the movie, the odds are good you yourself have a DiCaprio role in mind you think he should have won an Oscar for already. It doesn’t help that other awards shows don’t shy away from awarding him for his incomparable work, making the Oscars look all the more out of touch.
Now, DiCaprio is back after a two-year absence with The Revenant, his team-up with director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (fresh off his Oscar win for directing Birdman last year) that won Golden Globes last night not just for Best Actor but also for Director and Picture. It’s DiCaprio’s best shot at an Oscar, and not just because of the weak year 2015 was.
The Revenant tells the unbelievably true tale of a man left for dead who fought through the harsh wilderness of 1800s South Dakota on a mission of blind revenge and retribution.
Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is an explorer, tracker, and fur trader who has enlisted with the United States Army on an expedition led by Capt. Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) along the Mississippi River along with others including Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter). Glass also brings his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who he’s training to hunt and survive.
When Glass stumbles upon two bear cubs, the mother grizzly viciously mauls him to within a few inches of his life. After transporting his injured body becomes too cumbersome and it appears Glass is about to die, Henry orders Fitzgerald, Bridger, and Hawk to stay behind until Glass passes and then to give him a proper burial.
Fitzgerald (who gets along with Glass about as well as the grizzly bear did), doesn’t want to wait for nature to take its course, so when Bridger is away at one point, he kills Hawk (in front of the bound and helpless Glass) and disposes of his body. He convinces Bridger they need to leave immediately because of approaching Arikara, and they dump Glass’s screaming body in a shallow grave before taking off.
But Glass doesn’t die. He pulls himself out of his grave, and barely has time to grieve before he has to run for his life from the Arikara, taking measures to try and heal as he goes. Like the protagonists of recent solo survival stories The Martian and All is Lost, Glass knows everything he needs to do to brave the harsh environment – but Matt Damon and Robert Redford never had to eat raw bison liver or sleep inside a hollowed-out animal carcass just to survive.
With nothing to live for now except vengeance, Glass sets off on the 200-mile journey to the outpost where Fitzgerald and Bridger are heading. To say he makes it there by the end is as much of a spoiler as revealing that the ship sank in Titanic; what Glass deals with on his trek, how far he’s willing to go to survive, and what happens when he finally reunites with the treacherous soldiers, though, is what makes the movie truly an experience to behold.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu is on an unbelievably hot streak. Once he finally ditched the worn-out conceit of “everyone is connected” that smothered Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, he was able to find a powerful and original voice that is already proving hard to categorize. The only similarities between Birdman and The Revenant whatsoever are that they each have the best direction of any film from their respective years.
Iñárritu attracted a fair amount of attention with his unusual directorial decisions making The Revenant, but they all paid off magnificently. The actors had to sleep outside in freezing temperatures, but it shows in their performances. Only natural light was used for the entire shoot, resulting in a visually wondrous picture. And even more responsible for the dazzling imagery is the new Alexa 65 camera Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who already won Oscars for Best Cinematography in both 2015 and 2014) used, which gives the movie a brilliantly three-dimensional look that almost pops off the screen.
Equal to the direction and the look of The Revenant is its acting. Gleeson gives one of his strongest and most intense performances, as does Poulter. And Tom Hardy is absolutely stunning as the emotional and cowardly yang to the patient and courageous yin of Glass; he very wisely avoids ever turning Fitzgerald into a senseless psychopath, creating an abhorrent antagonist you hate right from the start, partially because you understand the logic behind most of his despicable actions.
But you don’t care about all that. At this point, you’re still reading this review to know about one thing and one thing only: DiCaprio. After recognized performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Titanic, The Aviator, The Departed, Blood Diamond, Inception, J. Edgar, Django Unchained, and The Wolf of Wall Street, how does The Revenant compare? Very simply: this is the greatest performance DiCaprio has given yet.
While politics and psychology always play just as large a role in determining Oscar winners as the actual work does, if there were ever a movie DiCaprio deserved an Oscar for, it’s this. But then, it’s unfair to the movie to discuss its worth just by one actor; if justice prevails over politics and psychology this year (or even just aligns with it), The Revenant will be winning many more Oscars in seven weeks’ time than just Best Actor.
5 stars / 5
(CAVEAT: As brilliant and breathtaking as The Revenant is, you should be prepared going in that it’s a truly gruesome experience to witness. I can honestly say that, as far as movies that deal in realistic violence, The Revenant is probably the most consistently bloody and brutally violent movie I’ve seen. It’s completely germane to the story, true to the time period, and never done in an exaggerated fashion, but the physical torment Glass (and others) experiences was enough to cause around 20-30 people to leave the theatre I was in just during the first hour. If you’ve got the stomach for it, The Revenant is a masterpiece you owe it to yourself to watch; just be prepared, it’s a powerful experience that’s not for the faint-hearted.)