It’s hard to argue that The Revenant, directed by last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, isn’t a good movie. It is a good movie. It has battle scene between fur trappers and a Native American, presented as one long shot, that’s one of my favorite scenes of the year. It’s a long movie for such a simple plot, but it’s still a very well made, absolutely beautiful, piece of filmmaking. But the thing is: the movie knows all of this. If you met The Revenant out at a bar, The Revenant would tell you all about how well things are going and that life is pretty great right now. When you got home that night, The Revenant would have already left a brag sheet in your mailbox that ends with,
It was great catching up tonight. I hope things turn around for you soon.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants revenge against the man who left him in the wilderness to die (and some maybe spoilery other things I won’t mention), an ornery cuss named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). I mean, John Fitzgerald is the walking embodiment of a “sumbitch.” Hardy plays this type of character very well.
After Glass is left to die – Fitzgerald and Glass never got along much anyway and Fitzgerald only agreed to stay behind to “look after” Glass in the first place was for the extra money – Glass basically spends two hours of the film recreating one of the opening scenes from The Naked Gun. You know the one, where Nordberg is shot, then steps in a bear trap, then slams a window on his hand, then burns his hand on a stove, then leans against wet paint, then falls off the side of the boat. (That all might be out of order.) This is basically the gauntlet of bad things Glass must go through to get to Fitzgerald. At one point, he rides a horse off a cliff; later, as we all called it after the screening, he “tauntauns” the horse to stay warm. If you’ve ever seen The Empire Strikes Back (and if not, who are you?), you know exactly what I’m talking about. (“Iñárritu is a director with a well-established reputation for making characters suffer.)
But for all its technical brilliance, at a whopping 156 minutes, and working with a pretty simple plot, there’s plenty of time to look at scenery. This really is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. To prove this point, here is an image provided to media by the studio. It’s rare to get just a photo of “mountains and snow,” but this is The Revenant.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to win an Oscar. If I were an actor and someone said, “Hey, if you take this role, you will probably win an Oscar,” I would take that role. I’m not sure why this is something that is unacceptable to admit, but you rarely hear actors say, “Yes, I’d love to win an Oscar.” Which is why I am softening the following sentence by saying that I don’t want to assume someone took a role to win an Oscar, but: DiCaprio really wants an Oscar.
Honestly, when reading the script for a movie like The Revenant, the leading reason anyone would agree to be in this movie is, “I bet I could win an Oscar.” I still think DiCaprio has a chip on his shoulder from all the teen magazines his face adorned for so many years. He never asked for that – he always kind of went out of his way to avoid it (even in Titanic, he famously asked James Cameron if Jack Dawson could have a limp; Cameron, wisely, said no) – but adorn them he did. DiCaprio always seems in this never-ending fight for legitimacy, even though the overwhelming majority of people consider him legitimate.
I kind of felt bad for DiCaprio earlier this week when the whole false “raped by a bear” headline made the rounds. Here’s a guy who takes himself super-seriously, in a movie that takes itself super-seriously, that will now forever be known as the “bear rape movie.” Even though it’s not even true! But that’s what it will be. DiCaprio has been on the awards circuit for weeks now, telling any Academy member who will listen just how difficult a shoot The Revenant was (I don’t doubt this), but now the narrative of this movie has become “raped by a bear.” (This felt like one of those classic examples of a smear campaign that exists only to make the other side have to deny it, which they did.)
DiCaprio is immensely interesting as a person because he’s one of the few movie stars today who still acts like a movie star from the ‘50s – boppin’ around town with an ever-changing line-up of famous friends (which was once notoriously called “The Pussy Posse”) and supermodel paramours. And you just don’t see DiCaprio on the talk show circuit anymore promoting his new projects. (Granted, I didn’t put a ton of research into this, but the most recent one I could find was DiCaprio talking to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show to promote Blood Diamond.) He keeps himself at arm’s length, he’s not on Twitter … we just don’t know that awful much about him, which kind of makes us want to see his movies, because that’s really the only access you’re getting to him.
So this is a dumb analogy, but I’m going to do it anyway: In The Revenant, DiCaprio plays a character who gets mauled (mauled!) by a bear, then has to literally crawl and limp his way back to civilization. When DiCaprio is crawling through the muck, he might as well be crawling toward his Oscar, screaming, “Look at what I’m doing for you!” (I warned you this was dumb.) But, seriously, The Revenant was made to win awards. I don’t even mean that in a cynical or “Oscar bait” type of way. It’s almost too bloody and too off-putting to be thrown in what most people consider “Oscar bait,” but, still, it is a machine built to win trophies for the shelf.
It’s like the greatest episode of Survivorman ever. At one point, Hugh Glass eats a raw buffalo liver. He’s starving and DiCaprio makes that liver look like the most scrumptious meal he’s ever tasted. DiCaprio is going for it. I believed that he really wanted to eat that liver. This is nowhere near DiCaprio’s best performance, but it is his most urgent, in a “Do you not see how hard I’m working for you people?” kind of way. I wish the movie itself had a little more substance than, “this sure was a hard shoot.” It looks like it was! I just wish the movie had as much substance as that raw hunk of buffalo meat.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.