As you’re sitting in the theater watching Leonardo DiCaprio eating raw bison liver, it’s hard not to wonder to what lengths perhaps the greatest actor never to win an Academy Award will go in pursuit of his art.
Once you’ve seen “The Revenant” – the closest thing to an absolute lock for a Best Picture Oscar Hollywood produced in 2015 – go online and read what sort of actual hell DiCaprio went through making the epic frontier saga of survival and revenge. It will blow you away nearly as much as the two-and-a-half hour visual masterpiece did.
Scene by scene, you’ll watch him do something more incredulous and crazy than the last and think aloud director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his team faked it. Odds are, they didn’t. DiCaprio nearly kills himself in by far the best western film in more than two decades, with his performance as frontier scout Hugh Glass making John Wayne and Clint Eastwood look like scared little children.
Within every frame, DiCaprio pierces the audience with his eyes and brings them inside the soul of a frontiersman struggling with loss and pain in the most visceral of ways. His physical performance speaks novels while his mouth rarely opens to speak.
There’s something hauntingly beautiful about the way DiCaprio is able to transform himself into a character we’ve never seen him come close to portraying before. Hugh Glass is the pinnacle of DiCaprio’s tour de force career and one moviegoers will remember him by for decades to come.
As much as “The Revenant” is an one-man show, DiCaprio isn’t the only award worthy performer on screen. Glass’ foil as it were – Fitzgerald, the complex man who leaves Glass for dead in the middle of nowhere – is played by acting chameleon Tom Hardy, who melts away into the vigilante fur trapper. Powerful yet subdued, Hardy crushes every scene with a finesse usually found in older, more seasoned performers. Hardy not only deserves, but needs, to be nominated for his first Academy Award for the role, as his performance also elevates scenes with DiCaprio late in the film into the cinematic stratosphere.
As expedition leader Captain Andrew Henry, Domnhall Gleeson finishes off a stellar 2015 acting run with a compelling performance in support of DiCaprio and Hardy. Gleeson, who wowed with a leading turn in sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina” and supporting roles in both “Brooklyn” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” has certainly proved to be one to watch out for in the coming years.
The only flaw within “The Revenant” – if there is one at all – comes from the film’s slow, arduous pace, which will daunt some viewers. Inarritu stretches each scene to its absolute limit visually, in the performances he pulls from his actors and even in length. It takes a deft hand to make such painstaking trials and tribulations feel emotionally rewarding to watch and the Oscar-winning director succeeds to a large extent.
Inarritu continues the same visual style that made last year’s Best Picture winner “Birdman” so striking, with long, uncut tracking shots following the action of “The Revenant.” Though not made to look like one continuous take spread over the course of nearly three hours, scenes go by for eight to 10 minutes at a time effortlessly, most notably during a harrowing bear attack and the opening action sequence, which sees DiCaprio and his band of fur trappers attacked by a tribe of Native Americans.
Action pulsates during this scene from gun battle to hand-to-hand combat and back again so flawlessly that it’s difficult to comprehend in the moment just how beautifully the artistry of creating that scene was possible. The opening battle favorably evokes the emotions and awe viewers felt the first time they watched U.S. troops storm the beaches at Normandy at the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Saving Private Ryan.” Inarritu opts for more artistry in his work than the gritty realism of Spielberg’s WWII classic, but “The Revenant” still manages to feel authentic and immersive.
There’s a lot of violence on screen – not to the extent as Quentin Tarantino’s self-indulgent “The Hateful Eight” – and all of it feels necessary and dynamic within real contexts, though viewers might occasionally find themselves wincing at the sight of a bloodied and beaten DiCaprio at the paws of a grizzly. The bear attack scene will likely become the film’s most iconic and is transformative in the sense that it feels less like part of a fictional movie and more like an in-the-moment observation of a genuine attack.
The coup de grace that brings “The Revenant” together as a whole is the camerawork of director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, a two-time Oscar winner for “Gravity” and “Birdman” and a certain nominee for the same cinematography prize this year. For all the grand bravado of George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” or Denis Villeneuve’s quiet and dark “Sicario,” you won’t find a better looking movie visually than “The Revenant,” shot entirely using natural light in cold, wide open expanses of Canada and Argentina which evoke the frontier Pacific Northwest of the film’s setting.
Lubezki’s genius – with obvious and immense credit to Inarritu as director – pours out on screen as viewers are immersed into the world of frontier fur trappers. If it’s possible to feel cold just by watching events unfold on screen, “The Revenant” does that. Natural lighting helps put the audience in the moment in ways few other films are able to. Watching “The Revenant” on the biggest possible screen is an absolute must. Smaller screens – especially TVs and tablets – won’t do this film justice at all.
While Inarritu, Hardy and certainly Lubezki are all worthy of accolades during this awards season, all three pale in comparison to DiCaprio’s acting masterpiece, which is in the highest stratosphere of 21st Century performances. The raw, visceral nature of his work prove without a shadow of a doubt that if DiCaprio doesn’t win an Oscar for his performance as Glass, he never will.
Don’t make the mistake of waiting to see “The Revenant,” hoping to catch one of 2015’s four best films on DVD or Bluray months from now. Run, don’t walk to your local movie theater and catch a piece of cinematic heaven on screen.