In 'The Revenant,' Leonardo DiCaprio seeks truth but gives his fakest performance yet
By By Dominic Griffin
Jan 19, 2016 at 1:19 PM
It's hard to say when exactly the national conversation surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio became a meme-laden dissertation on how much he deserves an Academy Award. He's been a movie star for decades and one of the most well-respected performers of his generation. He gets to keep making movies with Martin Scorsese. He's probably had sex with Rihanna. Why are we as a nation suddenly so preoccupied with whether or not he wins an Oscar? You know, Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar and he never got to see Gisele Bündchen naked, either.
This tragic gag probably picked up steam with a story from the set of "Django Unchained," where DiCaprio cut his hand during a pivotal scene and kept going anyway. That take ended up in the finished film and became the ne plus ultra of method acting DiCaprio has strained to typify. Maybe to the average moviegoer, requiring a bandage is more than enough proof of legitimate dramatic merit. Along these lines, DiCaprio has doubled down on the self-sacrifice for his latest turn in "Birdman" director Alejandro González Iñárritu's "The Revenant." Judging from his recent Golden Globe win, the strategy appears to be working.
Thanks to a very successful marketing campaign, there's a strong chance you have zero idea what "The Revenant" is even about, but you're likely well versed in what went into making it. Iñárritu took a project that began as a rather straightforward revenge thriller (having passed through the hands of far more entertaining directors like Park Chan-Wook and John Hillcoat) and turned it into a towering monument to performative masochism. Ostensibly, the narrative follows Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a fur trapper in the early 1800s, who is mauled by a bear before being betrayed by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a comically selfish brigand who kills Glass' son and leaves him for dead. This being a movie, Glass has to claw his way through the snow to get his vengeance. This being an Iñárritu movie, that process has to be made as overt, torturous, and draining as humanly possible. Shot chronologically, using mostly natural light, in the freezing cold for months, "The Revenant" is so principally concerned with capturing the platonic ideal of absolute realism that it winds up being the fakest movie you'll see all year.
You can't argue with the film's objective beauty. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki employs many of the same techniques he's used in collaboration with Terrence Malick here, especially in the film's many misguided Malick-aping dream sequences that hover right above Tarantinoian homage in the comfortable space marked "art-house minstrelsy." The movie looks gorgeous and there's always something aesthetically pleasing about long takes and spiritually drifting camera movements, but when they're in service of nothing, you come to discover how shameless and cynical they are as storytelling quirks. The longer the camera watches all of these very recognizable actors playing dress up in their ratty period-appropriate garb and their lumbersexual beardery, the more you feel you've got a front-row seat to the world's most self-important Civil War re-enactment. For every minute of prolonged stillness meant to evoke being trapped in a moment, there's a splash of blood or water on the lens, reminding you that this is all just make-believe. There's nothing at all wrong with fiction, so long as it doesn't masquerade as some kind of vital documentary.
The entire trope of revenge on screen is a puerile, exploitative conceit, but Iñárritu seems too insecure to let the violent psychodrama play out in any way that might be satisfying or at the very least intriguing for an audience. He spends so much of the film's running time making us watch DiCaprio crawling in the snow or closing open wounds with gunpowder that he doesn't even bother making us relate to him to him in any meaningful fashion. This is a simple setup, when you get down to it. Imagine watching "Point Blank" but it's just two hours of Lee Marvin stumbling through alleys trying to find antiseptic for a gunshot wound. Even that would be more interesting than this because at least Lee Marvin would be acting! DiCaprio is so obsessed with authenticity that he ceases to perform. His considerable charisma is purposefully muted, replaced with a symphony of guttural grunts that wouldn't be out of place in a poorly mixed porno.
Watching DiCaprio ape Tom Hardy's shtick from "Mad Max: Fury Road" is all the more hilarious when juxtaposed with the laundry list of comical risks Hardy himself takes with the same material. While everyone else is content to just be, and be as intensely as they can muster, Hardy chews on thick, wadded-up bits of questionable dialogue and spits out a vulgar kind of poetry. His utter disdain for all of the "acting" on display feels about as shade-heavy as Laurence Olivier's on that infamous "Marathon Man" bench.
We watch films because, when made well, they're beautiful lies capable of telling harsh truths. Here, Iñárritu flips it and reverses it, artificially roughing up edges that poison any chance at emotional honesty this story could possibly muster. There's nothing inherently laudable in a rich movie star pretending to live in the woods for a few months, especially given the lap of luxury waiting for him right past the finish line. Especially when he plans to name-drop the plight of indigenous people throughout the awards season for a movie that uses Native Americans like set dressing.
If you ran into "The Revenant" at a party, it would be that bespectacled bro who can't stop talking about how he bikes to work and grows his own fruit, like anyone really gives a shit.