Give Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar already.
Over the course of his career, the 41-year-old actor has turned in intricate, carefully crafted characters from Edward “Teddy” Daniels to Jordan Belfort to Calvin J. Candy, but it is in The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow up to Birdman, that DiCaprio gives his rawest and most honest performance of his career.
DiCaprio disappears into his performance as Hugh Glass, a 1800s fur trapper battling the elements in America’s frozen wilderness. The Revenant tells the true story of Glass, who is mauled by a bear and left for dead by by fellow trappers Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) only to rise like Lazarus from grave and seek revenge against them.
It’s a pained performance, one that utilizes DiCaprio’s icy glare and an intense stillness. DiCaprio barely speaks throughout the film and only a few times in English, leaving much of the audience’s understanding of Glass to his mannerisms: quick glances out into the vast wilderness separating him from safety, the way his snarl of pain and rage quickly gives way to grief and shock, the sad registering of a dead body as he comes across it. Glass is not an action hero; he’s just a man with his own faults, limitations, and strengths. For much of the film, he’s in a vulnerable defensive position, inches away from a death that he could easily give himself up to. He crawls on his stomach at a snail’s pace, too weak to walk, his muscles willing him to stop and his body wanting to die, but he crawls onward, propelled perhaps by something deeper than revenge. There’s a survival instinct there, an animalistic urge not to go gently into the night, that pulls the audience through the screen and into the northern wilderness.
The Revenant reaffirms that message in its opening minutes. DiCaprio narrates over dream like images of beauty, pain, and death, urging his half-Native American son, Hawk, to fight as long as he has breath in his lungs. Iñárritu creates a violent painful yet beautiful world, reminiscent of last year’s Fury. Coldness seeps from every frame, a glacial chill that somehow seeps from the celluloid and out of the movie screen. This is not an easy world to survive in. The fur trappers are filthy, battle hardened survivors. The Native American tribe, The Arikara, are unstoppable predators in their vengeance and hunt, but also not without the audience’s sympathy. They’re not villains. They have a reason for their actions that would make them heroes in a different story.
There’s violence and blood. Men are shot, hacked to pieces, and scalped. The American Frontier was not a pleasant place, and the camera lingers on the violence just long enough to make that point without being gratuitous. The grizzly attack on Glass is painful to watch. The CGI, camera angles, and DiCaprio’s performance makes the entire sequence feel real and unsettling as it drags on and on. It stays at ground level with Glass, focused on his face as he’s slung around and mauled.
There’s deftness in the camera work, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki using only natural light and breathless tracking shots. There’s an early battle sequence that’s one long tracking shot following the fur trappers as they are ambushed by the Arikara. A technical masterpiece, the camera work is reminiscent of Iñárritu’s Birdman, only much more chaotic and a lot bloodier. Throughout the film, the camera lingers on the frontier, large trees stretching to the sky, the muddy landscape changing to that of wintery snow. There’s a reverence to the forest, a respect of it as an ancient hallowed ground marked by the interference of man. In the world of The Revenant, the forest is the closest thing to God, the decider of life and more often death, and the connecting force between all who enter it.
Outside of DiCaprio’s performance, the rest of the cast is at the top of their game. Will Poulter brings a vulnerability and nativity to Jim Bridger that sells him as someone inexperienced with the coldness of the Frontier. Domhnall Gleeson portrays Captain Henry as an honorable and noble leader with a fierceness bubbling under the surface. But, the strongest performance of the supporting cast is Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald, the villain of the film. Fitzgerald is Glass’s antithesis, a fur trapper who’s greedy, selfish, bigoted, and ruthless. He’s a product of the world that he lives in, all traces of goodwill stripped from him by life in the frontier. He’s scarred, both physically and mentally, and an example of what Glass and the other fur trappers are in danger of becoming.
The ending is a little underwhelming and non-factual to the real life tale of Hugh Glass. It seemed like Iñárritu didn’t know how to end his frontier odyssey, and while the last sequence is just as brutal and extreme as what came before, it seems manufactured and Hollywood in comparison to the rest of the film. The climax to Glass’s tale of revenge copies more than a couple beats from similar films in the genre and is somewhat predictable by comparison. It’s easy to see the ending coming, down to who lives and dies, and how the Arikara factor in. The moral grayness gives way to a black and white look at the world that doesn’t really gel with the rest of the movie. The ending is especially disappointing when compared to Birdman’s insane closing. A more real life or nuanced take would have helped tied together the film’s central message.
The Revenant is brutal and unrelenting for its entire runtime and may not be for everyone. This film isn’t for someone looking for an uplifting message about the human condition. It’s a dirty violent look at how far a human body can be pushed and the lengths a person would go just to survive. In a way, Glass’s grueling crawl through the forest represents DiCaprio’s own hunt for Oscar gold. Through his career, the actor has pushed his body through increasingly extreme conditions to capture the essence of the character onscreen. In Hugh Glass, he’s at his most vulnerable and defensive, but also at his most angry and determined. As Robert Frost so eloquently put, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep.”