Whilst guiding a team of fur trappers in the snowy North American wilderness of the 1820s, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds himself in a pretty poor state after being mauled by a bear whilst the group is fleeing a surprise attack from a Native American tribe they refer to as the Ree. Being unable to carry Glass back safely without endangering the rest of the team, captain of the party Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) requests Glass remain behind but be cared for and properly buried when the time comes. He leaves Glass under the protection of bitter, greedy trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), naive and inexperienced Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass’ own half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Circumstances arise that see Glass being abandoned with life still, barely, coursing through his veins, and he finds himself driven by vengeance against those responsible for abandoning him.
For those reading this in the decades, centuries and millennia to come, because of everything on the Internet it will of course be my inane ramblings that survive as cultural touchstones for our generation, I’m writing this a week before the 88th Academy Awards ceremony. The Revenant is up for 12 Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor (shockingly it got no love for any of the female acting performances – oh wait that’s because the only female character is a bear), Director, Cinematography, Editing and pretty much every technical award. The film has been picking and choosing all the awards it wants from seemingly every other ceremony, but whilst I don’t begrudge any of the nominations, I’d be somewhat disappointed if it cleaned up at the main awards next weekend.
I like DiCaprio as an actor, I really do. He is amongst the best and most consistent actors of his generation, but that doesn’t mean he deserves an Oscar, and The Revenant should not be the film he receives one for. Every year he has been nominated for an acting award he hasn’t been the best of the bunch. For What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Ralph Fiennes was a better Supporting Actor in Schindler’s List, for Blood Diamond there’s no contest between DiCaprio and Forrest Whittaker for The Last King Of Scotland or Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, for The Wolf of Wall Street you can take your pick between McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave or Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. The closest he could have come was in 2005 when he was nominated for The Aviator, and whilst I haven’t seen Jamie Foxx in Ray, I’d have happily given it to either Paul Giamatti for Sideways or Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind over Leo. And this year, whilst there’s no contesting DiCaprio has been through a great deal in the filming of The Revenant, I think a better acting performance was actually given by the only other Best Actor nominee I’ve seen at this point, Matt Damon in The Martian.
This isn’t going to turn into a review of The Martian, which still remains my favourite worldwide release of 2015 (with Whiplash being my top UK release), but I think in the role of Mark Watney Damon put across a complete character, who believably underwent all the actions on screen whilst still remaining entertaining and captivating, convincing me that he was stranded on Mars and just making a stellar job of coping with it all, whilst in reality Damon was filming on a green-screen or sound stage or in a desert somewhere or wherever. DiCaprio on the other hand is mostly shown doing stuff, rather than acting it. This isn’t an award for the Most Difficult Shoot. Nor is it an award for Most Raw Buffalo Eaten or Fastest Hollowed Horse. It’s for Best Acting, and I’d argue that a lot of what DiCaprio is doing isn’t so much acting as enduring his environment. It’s the same issue I had with Robert Redford in All Is Lost, in that he wasn’t acting as much as he was doing the things you’d need to do in those situations. I’m very impressed with what DiCaprio put himself through for the finished result, I just don’t think this is the right award for that achievement. Also, I never really forgot that it was DiCaprio on screen, he was just trying way too hard to earn an Oscar, and chances are he’ll get it. I won’t be hugely annoyed, as this is probably the closest he’s come to deserving it (having not seen Trumbo, The Danish Girl or Steve Jobs yet), but I’ll still be a little disappointed if he doesn’t leave the ceremony empty handed. And don’t give me any of that career’s recognition bullshit. He’s 42 and looks 33, he’ll have plenty more shots at the golden baldie for many years to come.
So enough about DiCaprio, what about the rest of the movie? Well, as can be expected from Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, it looks stunning. They didn’t make things easy for themselves by opting to shoot entirely on location and with only natural light, often with the sun rising or setting on the horizon just to complicate matters further, so it seems the long shots here were probably more to keep the lighting consistency than anything else. There are some beyond impressive locations and layered sets on display, especially near the film’s beginning with the trappers being attacked by the Native Americans. The attempted escape from the attacking Ree is one of my favourite sequences of 2015, with utter chaos and carnage being portrayed without losing track of what is happening to whom, despite everyone looking kind of the same with their thick brown clothes and beards. It’s also pretty damn bloody and intense, and this film is often most definitely not for the squeamish. There’s a good chance I’ll never show this to my partner, as it’s not a film for everyone. If you’re a big fan of horses and don’t want to see any come to harm, maybe give this one a miss.
In fact, I probably won’t be showing this to Aisha because I’ve no desire to ever watch it again. It’s very much a one-and-done movie. I think I’ve gotten everything I could from it that first time around, and any repeat viewings would be purely for the visuals and technical wizardry on display. It’s definitely worth watching once though, as it really is very impressive. However, amongst all those Oscar nominations it received, there’s no surprise it didn’t pick up a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay, because if there’s anywhere the film is lacking it’s in the story. It’s actually pretty close to another multiple Oscar nominee with Mad Max: Fury Road in that a great deal of this movie is a chase. A lot of it sees the surviving band of trappers fleeing the Ree, and later sees DiCaprio’s Glass chasing Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald (who is great here too, and I’m glad he got nominated), who in turn is high-tailing after Domhnall Gleeson’s Henry heading back to camp. When various people arrive at certain locations, the specifics of the chasing become altered, but the chase continues nonetheless. Where Fury Road had a lot of entertainment value alongside the thin plot, The Revenant suffers in comparison by virtue of being, well, a bit more boring and a lot less fun. Granted this isn’t the kind of Friday-night post-pub drunken entertainment that Fury Road will excel at being, but this is also often difficult to watch, and not just for the gore, but also for just being an arduous slog. As much as DiCaprio heaves himself through the deep snow and bitter conditions, so too do we suffer through some of the longer, drown out scenes. Also, the film has nowhere near enough going on to fill all 156 minutes, making it even less likely I’ll ever watch this again.
That’s basically why I’m reviewing this now. Whether it wins the Best Picture award or not, for me this is the one absolutely certain film from 2015 to earn a spot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list later this year, so consider this a safely hedged bet that I’ll be linking this review to that page in a few months time.
Choose Film 7/10