The Revenant – He who shouts the loudest

“For your consideration…”

Who is the greatest living actor of our time? There can be only one. Many would vouch for Leonardo DiCaprio and for good reason, I suppose. Back at the height of “Leomania” in the late 90s, Rose vowed to never let go of Jack Dawson, as did about a hundred million teenage girls. Leo himself however was all about sending that fucker to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean without a moment’s hesitation. Over the last two decades DiCaprio has gained the reputation of playing more difficult roles, gleefully going to great lengths to appear deranged and unhinged, a conscious decision to distance himself from his past in which he was, for a time, bigger than the Beatles and Jesus Christ combined. A heart throb.

And who could blame him?

That said, I’ve always considered DiCaprio to be a little one note. He’s played Gatsby, Howard Hughes, an impossibly stressed undercover cop in the Departed and a wicked slave plantation owner, to name just a few. He’s played a diverse range of roles, a difficult selection of characters marked by psychosis, the threat of being crushed by overwhelming odds and the kind of rusting imperfections that can only lead to tragedy. At the same time, most of Leo’s performances all boil down to the moment in which he explodes in a ball of rage, shouting and screaming in the camera like a man possessed. No matter how many dodgy accents he tries to do, and he has tried a few, all DiCaprio performances culminate in that one thing. This is why people go to see his movies. They want to see that raw energy. You don’t see that kind of thing everyday. No one could never deny his passion or energy, but doew DiCaprio truly have the range to be considered a great actor? Is doing one thing well, enough? In all honesty, I’ve never been convinced. But then, I’ve always believed that less is more. Every new Leonardo DiCaprio movie has to find new depths for him to scream out aloud against. But when you’ve stepped past the line so many times, where else is there to go? Where’s the balance?

Leonardo DiCaprio is still yet to win an Oscar. A fact the mainstream media has spun out into this kind of semi-tragic narrative, in which despite all the actor’s effort, he just can’t quite convince the Academy. Like Lucifer fallen from heaven! It seems you can’t be the greatest actor of all time unless you gain the validation that only an Oscar can bring.

Dicaprio’s latest starring role in The Revenant is all about revenge, or more specifically about the lengths a man will go to survive so he may at least enact his revenge. In the run up to awards season, The Revenant could also be about how far a Hollywood actor will go to win an Oscar.

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According to legend, Leonardo DiCaprio cut open his hand during the filming of one of the pivotal scenes in Django Unchained. It is the scene in which Calvin Candie declares his personal beliefs about black people being naturally subservient to white people due to a minor anatomical feature in the skull – a far fetched but widely held belief back in the Nineteenth century during emancipation. In the heat of the moment, Candie slams his fist down upon a shot glass which breaks and splits open his hand. DiCaprio being in one of his mood, in a near state of possession doesn’t stop acting, and uses the energy to fuel the scene. He smears his bloody hand across the face of the actress playing Django’s beau. She’s his property and he is free to do with his property whatever he likes. It’s a great scene that enhanced the seething villainy of a most monstrous character.

Personally, I don’t think Leonardo DiCaprio has been better in a movie. It’s a role where he was able to ham it up and chew scenery, completely twisted and evil in a delicate Southern accent. It worked to his particular strengths as an actor and his great talent to overact. Nobody goes to the cinema to see Leonardo DiCaprio smoulder, they go to see him explode!

Manufactured or not, the ‘hand that was cut’ has passed into modern cinematic legend. Amidst all his onscreen rages, it represents the pinnacle of his form and his brand. It gives force to the idea that Leo is the kind of serious actor who selflessly bleeds for his art. Yet at the same time, it has become a kind of injoke within film circles because in a sense, it is only just a movie, but it also shows how DiCaprio is now stuck in a loop where he can only strive to yell louder and spray more of his own blood on screen. The Academy can only be obligated now to hand over the Oscar out of pity. Cinema is full of similar stories of actors undergoing bodily harm behind the scenes.

The Revenant has already seen DiCaprio nominated for best actor and in some ways, it feels like two and a half hours of the hand cutting scene. Leo bleeds for you, for cinema and the votes of the academy.

If this doesn’t work. Nothing will.

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Sucking my will to live.

The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass and his infamous tale of survival during 1823, which has been the subject of many books and films over the decades (Man in the Wilderness [1971]). The Revenant has been adapted from the novel of the same name written by Michael Punke and there have been some big changes made to the actual events that took place to make Glass’s stuggle more epic and righteous. So when you see ‘inspired by true events’ you really must take it with a pinch of salt.

For the most part, the story remains the same. After getting mauled by a bear whilst hunting, frontiersmen Hugh Glass is left for dead by his party. Despite his poor physical standings, Glass is able to pull himeself out of his grave and somehow find a way back to civilisation across 200 miles of wilderness, where he will claim his revenge on those who deserted him. Along the way he meets friends and enemies in the grips of the Louisiana Purchase in the form of a kind of odyssey.

The film adds more to the basic plot. From the beginning it is established that Glass had an Native American wife who he had a son with. Whilst she was brutally murdered in a massacre as the white man pushed West, his son Hawk now joins him as he finds employment as a navigator on the frontier. With the threat of Indian war parties in the area, the fact that Glass has a half Indian son arouses much suspicion from his mostly white party. Most suspicious is Tom Hardy’s character – a wide eyed mountain man by the name of Fitzgerald – who survived a scalping by Indians and has grown very bitter towards any Native Americans. Whilst Glass is immobile from his wounds, he witnesses Fitzgerald killing his son, turning the conventional left for dead story into bitter tale of personal revenge. Glass comes back from the dead, as The Revenant to overcome impossible odds and kill the man who wronged him.

It’s the American way!

Directing The Revenant, is Alejandro G. Inarruti, fresh off the success of Birdman which gained great critical acclaim during the 2015 awards season. As with Birdman, Inarruti employs the same use of long free flowing tracking shots to create a level of intimacy that heightens the tension and drama. The camera fluidly moves through scenes of calm, and just as you recognise something coming into the background, the shit hits the fan and suddenly everything descends into chaos.  The level of orchestration in the opening evacuation scene reminded me of the D-day landings from Saving Private Ryan in it’s depiction of utter chaos and senseless violence. At all times the camera is rooted to the ground with characters seamlessly entering and exiting the shot.

Never has a period piece felt so in your face and vibrant.

In any other movie, the film’s climatic horse chase would encompass grand wide angled shots and footage captured from a helicopter, you’d see Leonardo DiCaprio (or his stund double) out in front being pursued by a dozen Indians. You’d marvel at how many Indians would be there on screen because you can see it all so clearly, it’s all there to see, all spelled out for you. Such is Inarruti’s style however, the camera is mostly conjoined to Leonardo DiCaprio’s hip, which allows us to focus on the fear and desperation in our protagonists face, you need no other context, you are right there with him. It all feels so claustrophobic. To put it another way, in the Revenant, Leo is basically Anneca Rice to Inarruti’s breathless camera man. Wherever Leo goes, so do does the camera. Although much of the content is very graphic and hard to watch, the manner in which it is filmed makes it very accessible and easy to watch. You are drawn into the screen, there are no breaks or quick cuts, it’s all just there and you can’t quite look away.

At the same time it is a very beautiful looking movie, when the movie isn’t holding the audience in a vice, there is a degree of solace in the many sublime vistas of the American landscape. Forests and mountains are captured with the kind of perfect stillness you’d expect from an Attenborough wildlife program. Most of the film was shot in natural light on location within certain 90 minute intervals during the day. The only source of light came from the day, the night and camp fires, which creates an uncanny of realism. It also feels like most of the footage was shot in the moment, there was no time for rehearsals. The clapperboard was clapped, the director shouted action and Leonardo DiCaprio just goes for it. There is a boundless energy on screen, coming through the direction and the performance.

For this reason, and I have a habit of saying this a lot over recent years, The Revenant simply demands to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable.

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When we get down to the actual plot of the movie, The Revenant is a very simple tale of revenge, that is drawn out over two and a half hours in which Glass is effectively put through the a series of harrowing events. Each of the characters are painted in very broad strokes, there is never any question who is in the right and wrong. A sub plot, gives extra substance to the marauding Arikara Indians in which their motivations are explained as being born out of desperation since so much of their land and heritage has been taking away from them by the European invaders. The plight of the Indians and the rape of their homeland will of course play very well with the Academy.

The film is packed with action right from the get go. It begins with the Indian ambush, and continues with the infamous grizzly bear scene. Unfortunately, going into the second half of the film, the set pieces begin to feel a little too drawn out and excessive. The hollowing out of a dead horse is one such moment. At the same time it also felt laughably reminiscent of the tauntaun cutting scene from The Empire Strikes Back. You would well be within your right to yell “And I thought they smelled bad… on the outside”, if 90% of the cinema audience weren’t already thinking the same thing. The point of all the violence is to show the endurance and willpower of the character of Hugh Glass, he never stops to let go, he is driven to survive even though his life at this point has only one singular purpose.

In the end, so big are the perils he faces throughout his journey, his quest for revenge begins to feel a little futile. This is perhaps the grand point the Revenant is trying to make. To take a life for taking a life is still murder. Revenge is still a negative thing. And whatever drives Glass towards getting his revenge, it’s going to leave a gaping void in his humanity afterwards.

At the same time, the Revenant is full of more abstract dream sequences that depict Glass’s isolation, delirium and sense of longing. On first watch, these scenes felt a little random and cliched, particularly how he visualises his deceased family before him. I’m sure somebody will be able to piece together a deeper meaning behind the symbolism of the dream sequences, featuring a pyramid of bones and what looks like Glass wearing a skull mask, marking his transition into the ghostly force of revenge that could be defined as the ‘actual’ revenant. I just felt those scenes were too abstract and too brief, never really adding anything to the story.

Leo-fuck

So what about old Leo? Could this be the film that finally wins him Best Actor in a leading role?

First of all the character of Hugh Glass is perfectly formed Oscar bait. Glass is effectively a mixture of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves and Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator. Glass possesses a shining knowledge of the world around him beyond that of his largely ignorant and bigoted comrades who cause much of the pain and suffering in the world around them. Glass has an acceptance of Native American culture that his fellow white men do not – which makes him more contemporary and sympathetic with modern audiences.

Like Maximus, Glass is a largely noble and honourable character who is frequently wronged in the worst ways imaginable. He falls hard into the gutter but finds the willpower to build himself back up and overcome impossible odds to claim his righteous revenge. There are many dream sequences in which Glass, during his darkest moments, visualises his dead family smiling back at him from beyond the grave. At some points, his wife is even standing among wispy corn fields at sun down, you can practically hear the quieter moments of the Gladiator score coming through!

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Ooh the cornfields… copyright Gladiator [2000] or the Revenant [2016]… ah who cares?

On top of this you have DiCaprio’s performance which is competent and performed with gusto. The Revenant is a very physical film and Leonardo DiCaprio is at home providing a very physical performance. To reiterate, Leo is at his best when he is allowed to scream and shout and let it all out and Inarritu is clearly egging him on at all junctures.

As with all things, there are niggles however. Glass is pitched as a father in this movie, and I just couldn’t accept the father-son dynamic between him and Forrest Goodluck playing Hawk. Ultimately this worked against the entire revenge plot. Despite being 41 years of age, DiCaprio still seems too young and earnest to be a father. By contrast, in Gladiator – Russell Crowe had these big epic speeches that the audience could rally behind that gave him more nobility, he was a leader of men left devastated when his family is slain. I never felt the anguish Leo felt of losing his wife and son.

The Revenant is also another one of his films where he attempts to do some kind of old American accent that is supposed to locate him to the 19th century, but it doesn’t really work, just like all his other accents don’t really work. Luckily, he spends most of the movie with his throat torn out and thusly unable to speak in proper English and mostly communicating in anguished goans and guttural gargles.

On the other side you have Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, who is a good match for DiCaprio, coming from a very similar school of raw physical acting. Hardy is perhaps more physically imposing, with wild mountain man eyes and a Rip Van Winkle accent. Bizarrely I felt his character was more interesting than DiCaprio’s. Perhaps it was because Glass is just so painfully virtuous, and Fitzgerald in contrast is just so riddled with hate and despite his macho power is basically a massive coward running scared the whole movie. At one point, when the party have to ditch all their furs amidst the advance of the Indians, Fitzgerald refuses, because they represent his only sense of purpose in life. He has a monologue in which he talks about his experiences being scalped, which colours his character even further. Without any need for dream sequence’s (nightmarish as they probably would be) Fitzgerald’s motivations are much more clearer, even though he just so happens to be a vile and most evil cunt.

As with Birdman, the supporting cast also shine throughout the picture. Domhnall Gleeson is solid as Captain Andrew Henry, once again displaying great range as he slowly appears in every movie ever made. Will Poulter is also fantastic – especially next to Tom Hardy as a boy in a man’s world that has to quickly adapt his moral code within a hopeless situation. Poulter can more readily show inner turmoil and subtlety in his face, without yelling and hollering jibberish all the time. Proper acting! You might even say!

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The Revenant

But forget about Poulter. He’s a kid, he still has his whole career in front of him and plenty of Oscars to win.

Just what does a serious Hollywood actor got to do to win an Oscar? Does he have to throw himself into a freezing torrent of water? Strip naked to hide in a horse carcass? Eat raw bison liver? Surely this just puts him on a par with the average contestant on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Is this what an Oscar winning performance is now?

As with the nature of revenge. The real question is always what comes next. If he loses, DiCaprio will undoubtedly go and make more movies where he will freak out in. But what if he does win? What does it mean? How do you go on, once revenge is yours, once the coveted golden prize is finally yours and the eyes of the world are upon you shouting “YES” beholding one of the greatest actors of all time? Is it a time of reflection? Retirement? Do you simply tone it all down and become Ryan Gosling. Or do you simply go out into the night and attempt to claim another Oscar and another, to the point in which it all becomes too easy, and you find yourself sitting at the bar with Jack Nicholson with nothing left to do. What is the point of anything!?

Seeing, once again, Leonardo DiCaprio screaming to the point of mental breakdown, his neck veins protruding from his neck, his 40 year old baby face slowly turning purple, whilst he snots everywhere and foams deliriously from the mouth, I looked around at the audience gathered in the Dolby Atmos theatre and suddenly began to think that maybe there is a great value to all this pageantry and his particular style of over reaction. DiCaprio is providing us with catharsis really, capable of cutting off all ties and just go stark raving nuts for our viewing pleasure. People depend on Leo to provide this whenever he has a new movie coming out. As the audience we are mostly safe, comfortably watching from the sidelines, somewhat wiser in what we have witnessed but simultaneously comforted by the fact that it is unlikely that any one of us will find ourselves in a predicament as dire as Hugh Glass. That’s not to say that tragedy doesn’t happen to real people. It happens all the time. The world has become perfectly capable of showing you worse things to happen to a person. I guess there is a certain catharsis to the extent in which Leonardo DiCaprio is willing to pretend. It’s a kind of communal exorcism.

Come to think of it, he’s actually doing us a massive public service really.  Fuck… perhaps he is due an Oscar!? Why don’t the Academy realise this? WHY DO THEY HATE LEO!?

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Never been afraid of meeting a man’s gaze.

Ahem.

I preferred the Revenant to the The Hateful Eight, another one of the season’s violent period thrillers set in the American interior. Both are quite similar, obviously in their setting but also in their execution, with Tarantino employing so much wizardry within one interior and Inarritu getting so much claustrophobia out of a film that is largely set within vast exteriors. Whilst The Hateful Eight was all about style and explosions, leading to a very disposable piece of saturday night schlock. The Revenant is more memorable and contemporary. Directors like Tarantino may lament the decline of proper film, but directors like Inarritu are accomplishing great things with the modern format and creating something of great realism.

In conclusion, I feel the Revenant makes a solid break to be a truly profound cinematic experience, but somehow just misses the mark.

It should be profound of course, it’s based on a true story about a man on the brink of death who somehow defies the odds and makes it out to live another day. It certainly looks profound, and the sheer effort and energy exerted by the actors under Inarritu’s candid camera is electric. So why after all this, does the Revenant just not feel as profound as it should? Why is it not able to truly become a certified masterpiece?

There is a lot to admire in the way there is practically nowhere the camera and Leo won’t go together, but I’d be lying if I didn’t address the feeling that there is something missing, that leaves me coldly indifferent to it all. Perhaps my outlook is tainted by my own view of Leonardo DiCaprio, again pulling out a solid performance, but one we have seen many times before. Hugh Glass loses so much in the Revenant, his soul, his voice, many ounces of his own bodily composition, we hear and feel it all through DiCaprio’s performance, but the themes that are so inherently rich and powerful are just constantly overpowered by louder forces.

I guess my main problem with the Revenant is that it feels as if it is all about Leo.

The Revenant is an endurance run of a movie and not everyone will be able to keep up. The pedantic will remark how far fetched it all is, whilst the casual audience will think it is boring and moves too slow. Those of a softer persuasion will think it is simply too much. For me, The Revenant was effective as a highly physical and grim odyssey through the more violent parts of American history. For all the film’s technical brilliance, however, I couldn’t help but feel that somewhere amidst the extensive scenes of blood, gore and screaming, all the sense had just dribbled out. 

But that closing shot…. 

I once laughed at the idea of Leo routinely losing out on his Oscar. His performances would always end in one way, with one of his big trademark on screen tantrums that would wow so many except the academy. Whether on artistic merit or pity. I’m starting to feel that maybe it is, finally, his time. Once the time has past and the gong has been collected, perhaps then we can all move on. 

Not that anyone should give a shit about the Oscars in the first place… 

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Recommended viewing for wilderness survival movies with additional animal maulings.

The Edge [1997]

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Anthony Hopkins plays a billionaire who knows stuff, and is forced to put his gift of knowledge to the ultimate test when his plane crash lands in the Alaskan wilderness. Joined by Alec Baldwin, secretly having an affair with his super model wife, and Michael from Lost, they are stalked by a ravenous Kodiak bear, who may or may not proceed to kill the black guy first. It’s more of a soap opera than a gritty existentialist tale of survival but it’s a soap opera written by David Mamet, the man who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross. And there are bear maulings. If only this was true of all soap operas, like Hollyoaks for example.

The Grey [2011]

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At this point Liam Neeson has basically become a modern day version of Charles Bronson. A power fantasy for 40+ dads everywhere, exercising a slightly xenophobic habit of shooting up foreign cities to save the family whilst looking good in a fashionably youthful looking jacket. Fortunately, The Grey has more substance than most of Neeson’s revenge thrillers. Neeson plays a man who believes he has nothing to live for who is unwittingly forced into fighting for his life and the lives of other after a plane crash lands him in Alaska (again). As the man who knows survival stuff the most, he is elected leader of the group of survivors as they are relentlessly pursued by a pack of wolves.

Grizzly Man [2005]

There is more than enough Herzog within the metaphysical elements of The Revenant that you could link it to any one of his films. Seeing as we’re talking about men in the wilderness encountering bears, it feels appropriate to talk about Grizzly Man. Herzog’s devastating 2005 documentary that tells the story of the events leading to the death of Timothy Treadwell – a  naturalist who decides to go off and live in the wilderness of a national park in Alaska with his girlfriend with the belief that he will be able to tame wild grizzly bears and live peacefully among them. The film is made up of videos Treadwell shot of himself on location in dangerous proximity to the animals and interviews with his family and the authorities that dealt with his presence in the wild and his demise. In the end it’s about a misguided man with a tarnished ego who possesses a warped and wildly unrealistic assumption of nature which ultimately leads to tragedy. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

Alaska [1996]

Alaska was one of those family friendly creature feature adventures from the ‘affluent’ 90s that I forced my parents to see against their will as an overly enthusiastic sugar rushed 10 year old. It stars a young Thora Burch and Vincent Kartheiser as brother and sister who go off into the wilderness to save their dad who has crashed landed in the mountains of, you guessed it, Alaska. They are aided by a friendly polar bear cub and pursued by a dickhead poacher played by Charlton Heston. Thora Burch went on to make some great movies before quitting movies altogether. Vincent Kartheiser went on to play slimy Pete Campbell in Mad Men and I still hate him in this movie. Involuntary trips out into the wilderness don’t have to exclusively be about pain and death y’know.

The Revenant – ‘A World Unseen’ – Documentary

This will probably be on the DVD, but it’s cool they released it along with the film’s release. Big up those DVD extras and the disenfranchised Native Americans of the US. The Academy knows what’s up

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