Since it was announced that Leonardo DiCaprio was teaming up with visionary director Alejandro G. Iñárritu in "The Revenant" (and especially after the first trailer), fans have been buzzing about its potential to bring DiCaprio his first acting Oscar. The storyline, along with some absurd rumors about one of the film's most impressive scenes, have sometime threatened to swallow the movie whole. However, "The Revenant" is, at the end of the day, just a simple revenge movie ... but a very good one.
In "The Revenant," DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a tracker employed by a rough and tumble fur trapping outfit to lead them through the harsh winter of 1832 South Dakota. When Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear in a brutal twist of fate, the group's leader, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), tasks the wily John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) with staying behind to look after the thought-to-be-dying Glass to give him a proper burial. Without giving too much away, Fitzgerald jumps the gun, and soon Glass is trekking hundreds of miles for revenge and survival, navigating the uber-harsh elements and staying just ahead of a scorned Native American tribe on their own path of violent vengeance.
Glass' harrowing journey is beautiful. Cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, who has won the last two Oscars in his field for "Gravity" and "Birdman," again works miracles, making the weather its own character. It is ironic that as "Star Wars" and "The Hateful Eight" consume headlines with talk of 70mm, 3D, IMAX, and an odd dispute over the Cinerama Dome, perhaps no movie defines big screen-worthy more than "The Revenant." The skirmish between the fur trappers and Arikara Indians in the beginning ranks as one of the more visceral and intense battle scenes on film since the D-Day opening of "Saving Private Ryan," and the much-hyped bear attack scene is the epitome of CGI used right. The intimacy of the close ups and masterful sound editing of the bear's gasps for breath make the animal a character in a life or death fight with DiCaprio's Glass, not just an external danger. Sometimes throughout the film, Lubezki's ever-moving camera feels distracting and self-indulgent, but mostly it works to emphasize the struggle in every second of Glass' survival.
Speaking of the camera, it spends an awfully large amount of time on DiCaprio. His character's journey features large stretches of solitude and the role, filmed in Calgary and Venezuela in conditions the cast has described as hellish, tests the gutsy actor's resolve. DiCaprio passes the test. He captures the intensity of the survival epic's story in his face, while still managing to disappear into his quiet, stoic character.
If "The Revenant" was simply a two and a half hour pitch for DiCaprio's long overdue Oscar, it would still be an impressive, if hollow, tale. However, Iñárritu threads some big themes into the story's spare landscape. Echoes of the consequences of colonization and racism bubble to the surface as the Arikara bear down on the retreating fur trappers and Glass' half-Native American son causes strife in camp. "The Revenant" is, after all, a western, and any good western is a morality play. The tensions between Glass, the Arikara, Fitzgerald, and others, underscore how, while humans might never tire of focusing on their differences, they are all equal in the unforgiving eyes of mother nature. The characters' preoccupation with violence and revenge is rendered near meaningless by the wind and snow. They survive the impossible only to kill each other on the other side.
Sure, sometimes Iñárritu overplays his hand — Glass' dreamlike visions of his dead wife are a little much — and, as previously mentioned, the camera sometimes seems more preoccupied with the space around the characters than the characters themselves, but "The Revenant" largely hits its mark. DiCaprio, meanwhile, is good enough to rightfully land in the Oscar discussion, and, in a year where almost everyone is pulling for him, that should be enough to deliver his first win.
Watch the trailer for "The Revenant" below: