If you look at Leonardo DiCaprio’s last few roles, it clearly shows a willingness—nay, an eagerness—to bite off seemingly overwhelming amounts of meat off the proverbial acting bone and throw himself into his performances, from the dark and tortured J. Edgar (2011), to the campy and violent Django Unchained (2012), to the overindulgent The Great Gatsby (2013) to the physical and manic The Wolf of Wall Street. And now, in his current movie, The Revenant, DiCaprio goes even further, allowing himself, guided by director/writer Alejandro G. Iñárritu, to be the main player in a revenge/survival film set in the 1820s in the frozen wilderness, where he gets mauled by a bear, left for dead and forced to overcome everything from hypothermia, Indian raids and the fact that he’s literally in the middle of nowhere and on the brink of death with no food, no water and no protection to not only survive but exact revenge on those who left him for dead and killed his son. DiCaprio certainly has made an effort lately to choose a certain meaty type of role, that is for sure—one that, no doubt, challenges him as an actor and fulfills him professionally and perhaps even personally.
A more cynical observer, however, might have yet another description for these types of roles: Oscar bait.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Iñárritu is a fantastic director. In fact, he directed my favorite film last year, the one that won the Oscar for Best Picture: Birdman. I also happen to think that Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor. I have respected him since his early days in movies, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and This Boy’s Life (1993) and he’s done amazing work even as recently as The Departed (2006). But Iñárritu and DiCaprio really let me down here, as it feels that this movie, The Revenant, was made for everyone but the one group it should have been made for: the audience. It’s one thing to keep trying to get Leo his Oscar, but at least give us a movie that’s interesting and/or involving for us, the ones sitting in the seats.
We’ve seen revenge movies before. We’ve seen survival movies before. This movie, however, can’t figure out which it is, so it tries to be both—but it doesn’t work as either. This is the starkest, darkest, coldest, most brutal movie I’ve seen in a long time, and I just saw The Hateful Eight. What is supposed to get me through this experience is a visceral empathy for the character DiCaprio is playing and his plight—I’ve got to be absolutely rooting for him in order for any of this to work. Guess what? None of it does. All we learn about DiCaprio’s character before he is put into mortal danger—i.e. the moment our sympathies are supposed to switch on—had either been mumbled by him in the fewest lines ever spoken by a leading character in a movie since Seabiscuit, or shown to us in some sort of flashback/dream sequence that felt like so much like a Gladiator ripoff that it just made me wish I were watching that movie instead. So we had never connected with our main character before we were asked to spend the next two hours watching him suffer in the wilderness. And by the time he gets a chance at revenge, it comes along so late in the movie, I didn’t even care anymore. To be honest, I kind of just wanted everyone to be put out of their misery by that point.
And, from a believability standpoint, I know that we are supposed to grant movies like this some artistic license, but the number of reality leaps of faith I had to take became ridiculous after a while and, after a certain point, it was a bridge of believability too far to really take anything seriously. (They lost me even before they literally re-created a scene from The Empire Strikes Back. I wish I were joking.)
So all that we’re left with in The Revenant is Iñárritu’s beautiful cinematic work, which is, I grant, truly gorgeous. He, along with brilliant cinematographer (and two-time Oscar winner) Emmanuel Lubezki, fill the screen with stark moving paintings that illustrate the loneliness, desolation and desperation of our character. The craft always involved in an Iñárritu film is staggeringly good and The Revenant is no exception. The camerawork, costumes, use of natural light, and editing are all exceptional and award-worthy. The score, unfortunately, became grating at times, and I could’ve done without much of it. But the film looks magnificent.
There aren’t many performances in the film other than DiCaprio’s, but Tom Hardy does carry some screen time, but, sadly, Iñárritu turns his character into a one-dimensional caricature, wasting a truly talented actor. Domhnall Gleeson proves he is the MVP of 2015 (after being in Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Brooklyn) with another solid performance, if not thankless, in a small but significant role.
But The Revenant is clearly and intentionally Leonardo DiCaprio’s film. I’m sure it is meant to be his career’s crowning achievement and most likely will win him his highly sought after and seemingly coveted Best Actor Oscar. There’s no denying all he went through for this role and to deliver this performance, I just wish I could have found more pleasure in experiencing it.