It’s Oscar Sunday, and in a couple of hours the odds are that Leonardo DiCaprio will finally receive a Best Actor Oscar on his fourth try. He’s also been nominated for Best Supporting Actor when he was a child actor (for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and he was in line for a Best Picture Oscar as a producer of The Wolf of Wall Street, but he’s O for 6 as I write this. It’s not the longest drought – Peter O’Toole was nominated 8 times in a span to over 40 years and never won. Paul Newman was on his seventh nomination before he finally won for, oddly enough, reprising a character he’d performed 25 years earlier for which he received his second nomination – “Fast Eddie” Felson (in The Hustler and The Color of Money). If DiCaprio does win, he will have something else in common with Newman, for his performance in The Revenant is not his best.
Revenant means someone who has returned from the dead, and the movie is loosely based on Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and guide who was mauled by a bear while on an expedition in 1823 in the territory that became the Dakotas. Glass was left for dead but managed to survive and make his way 200 miles back to Fort Kiowa. This isn’t the first major film to tell the story. 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, starring Richard Harris and John Houston, was also based on Glass, though in the film his first name is changed to Zachary.
The Revenant began development in 2001, when producer Akiva Goldman bought the rights to Michael Punke’s book before it was published. As often happens, it was caught in limbo for many years with different versions of the screenplay and different actors attached to the project, including Christian Bale and Samuel L. Jackson. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu came on board in 2011, after directing Babel, 21 Grams, and Biutiful. DiCaprio and Tom Hardy signed on around that time as well. However, some of the financing fell through which caused the film to be put on hold. Inarritu instead did Birdman as his next film, which took several Oscars last year, including 3 for Inarritu (Picture, Directing, and Editing).
When the financing finally came together, Inarritu began filming in Canada, but a mild winter necessitated a move to the southern tip of South America. Inarritu eschewed filming with green screen, so the scenes had to be filmed in pristine wilderness. In the end the original budget of around the $65 million range had more than doubled, but the scenery in the film is spectacular.
What isn’t as spectacular is the screenplay which drifts over the course of the film’s 2 ½ hour running time. It’s the polar opposite of Birdman, which had some of the sharpest dialogue that’s been put on film. Large stretches of The Revenant take place with no dialogue at all. DiCaprio’s Glass is presented as a haunted man whose Pawnee wife was killed and who is now dedicated to his son Hawk (Forest Goodluck). When hostile Arikara warriors attack the expedition, the men are forced to abandon their boat and make for Fort Kiowa by land. Inarritu’s filming of the attack is a high-point for the film, capturing the confusion and brutality of battle in one long stylish shot with the camera doing 360 degree pans as the action flows around it.
The leader of the group, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), has the group hide the pelts they’ve caught and then set out for the fort. Glass is scouting away from the others when he’s set upon by a Grizzly. It is an extended, brutal scene with Glass fighting for his life. The others find Glass clinging to life and try to carry him with them, but the terrain is too difficult. Henry asks for volunteers to stay with Glass to bury him when he passes. Hawk stays, along with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter).
Hardy disappears into his character as usual, and he is mesmerizing in the role. Poulter plays Bridger as youthful and inexperienced, which is historically correct. While Jim Bridger became a legendary mountain man who helped explore the West and was one of the first to describe what became Yellowstone Park, at the time of Glass’ attack he was 19 and new to the territory.
After the Arikara and the bear, the story focuses on Glass’ long struggle to get back, and that’s where the movie turns into a bit of a long slog for the audience. It would have been a physically taxing shoot for DiCaprio, and that has appealed to the voters this award season. Actors who play roles where the character dies or has a physical handicap have always had an advantage in the Oscar race, and DiCaprio has both of those covered in a sense. He is also deserving for his whole body of work, and that is considered by voters as well. But I wouldn’t rate this as his best performance. (I confess to a soft spot for The Aviator and The Departed, while others would choose The Wolf of Wall Street or one of his other memorable roles.)
The film has been nominated for 12 Oscars, mostly because it fits the place of a blockbuster with its scope. Different from, say, Titanic, it may not capture the majority of those categories. But I wouldn’t bet against Leo.