When the Oscars nominations were announced at the end of last week while all the talk was about the relative exclusion of black actors and directors, the main ‘traditional’ story was the success for The Revenant. With 12 nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director and both male Acting awards, it’s clear that this was the Academy’s most all-round favourite film of the year.
But for me, The Revenant was more about what it tried to do than what it actually showed to the viewer. An epic survival film it is, but not one that I feel deserves the highest accolades available.
The Revenant is a story about a man trying to return to civilisation after being left in the wilderness to die. That man, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, is an American navigator in the wilderness of the 1820s American frontier, travelling with his son. But when Glass is attacked and left for dead, his quest to return back to civilisation against seemingly insurmountable odds (pitting him against French, American and Native American foes as well as the harsh weather conditions and formidable geography of the American north-west) looks impossible.
But Hugh Glass perseveres and his story is what drives the film. Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent, as ever, and portrays a gritty determination that sees him through the most difficult situations imaginable. While for the most part his acting is either limited to solo performances, he manages to convey a range of emotions despite being hamstrung by his character’s ailments and isolation. Whether or not it’s good enough to win DiCaprio the Oscar he craves I’m not sure, as I feel his performances in Django Unchained and Wolf of Wall Street were both far more impressive, but if his time has now come, it’s richly deserved over the course of his career. Tom Hardy too turns in a fantastic performances as the villainous John FitzGerald, also playing a character whose sole goal is to make it home, but with a far more ruthless streak to him that Glass. Hardy’s chameleonic acting abilities are too making him into a true star of the industry, and the Best Supporting Actor award would be very safe in his hands after his efforts in the last few years.
The scope of the film’s visuals is massive, as the frequent vistas of snowy landscapes hammers home every few minutes. You can almost feel the chill of the winter as you watch people take a dip in freezing cold rivers or sleep outside under the dark, starry skies. It’s hard to deny that the direction of the film adds a sense of grandeur to the film that makes Glass’ loneliness all the more prevalent.
But for me the acting and direction are all that makes the film what it is, with other key ingredients of a true Best Picture classic being missing in action. The story itself is far from inspired, with added attempts at emotional ties being feeble at best and the back-story of Glass and his relation to his Native American wife with whom he had his son being unexplored. The Native Americans look set to play a big part in the film with their frequent appearances and references, but in the end their role is largely second-rate and unimportant. There’s a lot of potential for great story-telling here, but it is ditched in favour of shots of DiCaprio overcoming yet another physical challenge. The movie lacks a soft touch that could really have made it into what it wanted to be.
On the other hand, though, the movie doesn’t deliver the goods on an action front either. There are plenty tense moments, with Glass being discovered or nearly so by different groups of enemies, but these are almost always squandered by being abruptly cut short or dragging on that bit longer than they should. There’s a fine line between suspense and boredom with these things, and The Revenant strays on the side of caution.
With that being said, there are some standouts – particularly at the start of the film before Glass’ injury. The use of CGI for the Native Americans and for animals really enhances the film and is done in such a realistic way that it’s almost impossible to distinguish it from reality.
What The Revenant is then is a film that packs a punch but leaves you longing for it to show the quality it promises. It’s a beautiful film, with great acting and a stunning setting – but the story doesn’t do it justice at all. A good film it is, but Best Picture it ain’t.