Leonardo DiCaprio has starred in a number of Oscar bait films, and has done so much to win that elusive Best Actor Award. The Revenant is the next in a long string of movies stretching back to (at least) The Aviator that were prime Oscar contenders. Once again, Leo has delivered a fantastic performance, but the film itself leaves much to be desired. Despite The Revenant’s Oscar leading twelve nominations, the film is a ponderous slog that is rescued by extremely beautiful shots and strong performances by Leo and Tom Hardy.
The word revenant means one that has returned from death. The Revenant is thus a dramatization of the true story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an explorer and fur trapper of The Louisiana Territory in the 1820’s. Glass is left for dead by his party of explorers after being mauled by a grizzly bear. First and foremost let me say this, Leonardo DiCaprio does a fantastic job. His body and mind are put through hell in this movie. He (as well as much of the film crew) was subjected to brutal conditions to get the shots right in this film. His performance is made all the more impressive considering he mumbles, grunts, and moans for almost half of the film after he is brutally mauled in the already infamous bear attack. The special effects and make-up artists also deserve particular mention for making his body look absolutely grotesque after the attack. Much like The Martian (another Oscar contender and a worthy one) the film succeeds when it shows the work and will of the lead character as he barely manages to survive in the brutal wilderness.
Tom Hardy does a great job being the detestable bastard John Fitzgerald, who sets the entire revenant in motion by killing Glass’ son and leaving Glass to die in a shallow grave. Hardy speaks in such a low growl-mumble that he’s unintelligible at times. In addition, while the film does a good job making him deplorable, it does so with a smug laziness that downloads all of the racist and ignorant attitudes of the era into Fitzgerald. The other white characters, are shown in a much more sympathetic light: Glass had a native wife and half-native son (and speaks a native language), the Captain is steadfastly honorable, while a young party member gives food to a native woman whose tribe has been completely wiped out. Fitzgerald literally says things like, “A savage is a savage” and “Let’s shoot some civilization into them”. My point here is that his character could have easily had a bit more complexity, of which there are hints of it in the film, but was reduced to ‘greedy white man who hates “savages” is truly the real savage’.
While Tom Hardy falls into a one dimensional racist trope, the natives in the film aren’t characterized much better than the classic Noble Savage. Their entire subplot is utterly pointless and has nothing to do with Leo’s vengeance. The subplot pertains to the Chief attacking white settlements looking for his kidnapped daughter. This could have been compelling in its own right, but isn’t given enough development to be effective. Worse, it's given too much screen time resulting in a drag on the film, since we don’t know the reason for his daughter’s abduction. The lazy excuse for the subplot is to have hostile natives attacking white outposts, and Leo in particular, as a way to keep the tension high. But there have been hostile Indian tribes as long as there have been encroaching whites since Christopher Columbus. Consequently, this subplot should have been cut from the film and saved at least thirty minutes of run-time.
The Revenant is not at all subtle with its themes or its desire to be prime Oscar bait. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu takes his love of long tracking shots and applies them with great skill to the action sequences of The Revenant. Furthermore, the film is gorgeous with its wide angled shots of the natural beauty of the wilderness, and this helps hammer in the desperation of Leo’s situation and his oppressive aloneness. But the long tracking and wide angle shots of nature’s beauty, and the focus on brutal unforgiving conditions almost seem calculated to subscribe to an invisible Oscar checklist. But I digress, the themes in the movie mostly deal with death in some form, fearing it, conquering it, becoming it, embracing it as long as you have a breath and the will. If you hated Sandra Bullock’s breathing in Gravity then get ready, because this movie has a breathing motif that runs through the credits. While I admit it's heavy handed, I did enjoy seeing Leo become what almost killed him over the course of the film, but his ‘rebirth’ into ‘Man’s domain’ lacked all subtlety.
Despite The Revenant's many missteps, it’s still a beautifully shot, and well-acted film. It excels in showing the hardship that Leo is put through after his vicious attack and his desperate struggle to survive. But The Revenant is a long tedious film with too many extraneous scenes, is heavy handed with its themes, and relies heavily on worn out tropes. Several scenes could have been cut and the film would still retain its visceral and emotional impact. As it stands, The Revenant is an exhausting experience that could have been shorter and a hell of a lot more satisfying. It’s definitely not the worst thing in the world, but it also shouldn’t have been nominated for twelve Oscars. But here’s hoping that this is the film that finally wins Leo the Oscar.
TLDR: The Revenant is prime Oscar bait that is overtly portentous and much too long. It's saved by its action sequences and Leonardo DiCaprio’s brilliant performance. 3/5 Stars