The Revenant: **** out of 4.
It’s easy to think of The Revenant as simply the vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio’s brutally other-worldly Oscar-winning performance or as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to last year’s Award-winning Birdman.
In fact, as I was sitting in the theater watching Leo eat raw bison liver and sleep in animal carcasses, I kept wishing he’d already won an Oscar (even though I don’t think he’s had a performance I would have voted for before this one) so the craziness would end. I kept mumbling to myself, “It didn’t have to be this way. Give him an Oscar so the insanity will stop already!” But in all seriousness, Leo’s performance should go down as one of the best of all-time, but the subplot surrounding his striving for an Oscar distracts a bit from it, at least on this side of what will hopefully be his first Oscar win.
Sadly, it also distracts from how magnificent and brilliant this film is as a whole. In fact, I think The Revenant would be my vote for Best Picture of the past two years. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to get the respect and recognition it deserves due to Iñárritu’s success last year.
So what makes The Revenant so powerful? It is filmmaking operating on all cylinders, pushing each of those cylinders to the max in a breathtaking experience that leaves you gasping for air while pumping your fist.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography steals the show under the guidance of Iñárritu’s direction. Fellow Wise Guise founder Clayton Martin said it best when saying that it felt like a Terrance Malick film at many moments. In the same way that The Tree of Life used stunning shots to cause you to deeply reflect on the dichotomy of both brutal force and beautiful grace in nature, Lubezki’s cinematography causes us to take in the western frontier in a way that made me reflect on my own limitations and infinitesimal place in the universe while being in awe of God’s beautiful creation.
The film itself inverts much of Hollywood’s Cowboys and Indians genre in a more complete way than Dances with Wolves or Deadwood ever could. In many ways, it feels like the worthy successor to epic man films of our youth, continuing on the traditions of Braveheart and Gladiator. After seeing it, I was really productive and reluctant to complain about anything. After all, if Hugh Glass could do all he did on the wild frontier, my life is soft and easy in comparison. For the men out there, seeing this will make you a better man, husband, and father. Make it happen.
Yes, the movie is not for the fainthearted or squeamish as it depicts a gritty and unsparing frontier life from the first breathtaking and stomach-churning moments. And yes, the film only gets more savage and ferocious from scene to scene. But it refuses to capitulate to one sentiment, choosing to depict both the forces within the individual and the forces across hundreds of miles, both evil and good, both justice and grace.
It’s this last relationship that is most powerful, as the film deals with the relationship between justice and grace, causing the viewer to deal with their own thirsts for revenge and longings for redemption. This brings us back to the performances which truly make the film. Yes, the cinematography, direction, and script based off of real life set the stage. But Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Domhnall Gleeson make the film special.
Tom Hardy is the cutthroat, selfish villain. But as both the comic relief and the pragmatist, the complexity of the character would give Tom Hardy my vote for Best Supporting Actor if I didn’t love Sly Stallone and the character of Rocky Balboa so much. Regardless, his performance is another thing understandably overshadowed by Leo’s performance while also being just as worthy of recognition.
Domhnall Gleeson continues his momentum begun in his supporting role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As the leader and moral compass, he serves as the perfect foil to Hardy’s villain.
But the movie ultimately is Leonardo DiCaprio’s. Beyond the extreme conditions and commitments to the role, Leonardo provides life to a character that could easily be a caricature. Hugh Glass was a real man, and Leo’s performance completely captures him as a hunter, husband, father, friend, and survivor. As he grapples with his grief, his anger, his revenge, and his own redemption, Leo’s performance does more than just finally earning him his Oscar. It makes us fall in love with westerns in a new way that makes us reflect on our own tiny place in this huge and unrelenting universe.