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‘The Revenant’ is thrilling, but is it Oscar worthy?

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By Thomas Kika

1/26/16


With an impressive 12 nominations and a strong performance at the box office so far, “The Revenant” is looking like the film to beat at this year’s Academy Awards.  History is in the film’s favor as well: director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous films, “Babel” and “Birdman,” were major Oscar-contenders in their day, and the movie-going public is eager to see star Leonardo DiCaprio take home his first Oscar after years of stellar work as one of Hollywood’s foremost leading men.  While the film is a thrilling and beautiful piece of work, in the end “The Revenant” lacks substance.

Based loosely on the novel by Michael Punke, which was itself loosely based on true events, “The Revenant” follows Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a rugged frontiersman and hunter, as he and his half-Pawnee son, Hawk, help a fur trading company navigate the wilds of Montana.  After a fierce encounter with a mother grizzly leaves Glass mortally wounded, he is left in the care of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a greedy and hateful trapper. This is unclear to me.  Fitzgerald, keen to be rid of him, kills Glass’s son and leaves Glass in a shallow grave, where he presumes Glass will die.  However, Glass is a stronger man than Fitzgerald knows, and with revenge in his heart he begins crawling his way back to the trading outpost across miles of rough and wintery terrain, bent on killing the man who took everything from him.

There is no denying that “The Revenant” is a beautiful film.  Iñárritu reteams with his “Birdman” cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, and the two have crafted a film full of striking natural vistas, dizzying camerawork, and savage set-pieces.  Iñárritu infamously insisted on shooting the film exclusively in natural light – taking a page from the master Terrence Malick – which, though it meant they could only shoot for a couple hours a day, has resulted in a distinct and organic look that often borders on ethereal.  The visual style accomplished in “The Revenant” easily tops the all pomp, no circumstance, one-take style of the long-winded “Birdman.”  

Still, while the robust visuals are among the film’s biggest triumphs, they also tend to be in line with the film’s most prominent shortcomings.  “The Revenant” is a film full of savage beauty, but it doesn’t get much deeper than that.  The film’s cinematography is never not striking, but a lot of the film’s compositions have little to add to its story.  Iñárritu employs a lot of the long takes that he explored with “Birdman,” but they add nothing to the audience’s understanding of the story and characters, so it often just feels like he is showing off. Perhaps the frequent emptiness of the film’s visuals is a symptom of its simple story, which can be summed up as “A Tale of Revenge and Survival… and Not Much Else.”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance also draws major attention to “The Revenant,” and while his commitment and intensity are as impressive as ever, his Hugh Glass is a fairly one-dimensional character.  He is driven by little more than rage, and the script never calls for him to be anything other than intense. Looking just at the physical feats involved, DiCaprio’s performance is mind-blowingly good, and the highly-publicized lengths he went to for the role (eating raw bison liver, slipping into a dead horse carcass) are commendable.  Still, it is far from the most fleshed-out performance of the year, and it is not even the best performance in the film.  That accolade goes to Tom Hardy, who makes John Fitzgerald one of the more nuanced scumbags to grace the screen in 2015.  Fitzgerald is a real bastard, deceitful and bigoted, but in some key scenes we glimpse a surprising sense of honor within him.

To call “The Revenant” one of the best films of 2015 would be to severely overrate it.  Many of the year’s best, like other Best Picture nominees “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian,” blend excitement with depth in a way that the “The Revenant” never manages consistently.  Still, a film with such a distinct look and intense pace can hardly be called bad, and in fact, it is quite good.  It just might not be all it is being made out to be.  Go in expecting something like an arthouse summer blockbuster and you will be in for a treat. 

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