Once a year, or thereabouts, Leonardo di Caprio makes a movie and everyone who still cares starts asking if this will be the time he finally gets an Oscar. So inevitably, we’re getting it for The Revenant where Leo is in with a shout, or maybe a grunt, as best supporting actor to the career-defining performance from the bear.
The last thing I saw which felt even a little like The Revenant was Lone Survivor, which also featured a bunch of white dudes going where they weren’t wanted, getting righteously banged out of shape by pissed-off locals, mostly killed, and then one guy making it out of the ordeal thanks to the help of unaccountably good-natured other locals. Also, both give away the ending right there in the title. There are, of course, differences. The Revenant looks much better whenever it’s in landscape mode, for example. On the other hand, Lone Survivor was based in part on the autopsy reports of the poor Americans who got killed, so it was at least trying to stay true to the events, whereas The Revenant is so loosely based on the novel that it takes the action off the high plains in early summer and up a mountain in mid winter. And gives Hugh Glass a whole family that no-one, not even him, ever claimed he had.
How much truth there actually is to the Hugh Glass story is anyone’s guess, given that it’s an incident from 1823 involving a young Jim Bridger, who did not get famous for going around telling low key versions of the stuff he’d seen and done. Taking the story at the baseline, Glass almost got killed in a bear attack, got abandoned by his companions when it looked like he wasn’t going to make it, and then crawled a couple of hundred miles back to civilisation despite injuries which should have killed him.
Which is the very definition of adventure, which is to say terrible things happening to people a long way off who you don’t know all that well. But it wasn’t anything like adventurous enough for the director of The Revenant, who threw in a son to get murdered, and a whole tribe of Indians out to butcher anyone they could find, winter, mountains, and a whole bunch of other problems which would have straight up killed Glass before he’d crawled the first three miles.
And you know what? It looks great, but it’s hard to give a damn. From pretty early on in the movie I was thinking about a wide angle zoom I’d been meaning to buy - say this for Inarritu, he can do wide angle composition, but he may not be so hot on characters when I can be mulling over that stuff instead of caring what happens next. I think there’s supposed to be all kinds of layers of allegory in play, what with Glass hunting the killer of his son, and the Indian tribe hunting the guys who they think snatched the Chief’s daughter (and being every bit as absolute about the whole deal as John Wayne in The Searchers, though I’m not sure if that was an intentional parallel). The bad guys turn out to be French, of course. Still your go-to white villains in any American movie, any time. And lots of heavy handed points are made about how the interlopers have destroyed the environment, not that anyone paying to see this movie is really going to be any more galvanised on that point than they already are.
The violence is gruelling and gripping, but somehow uninvolving; partly because it’s hard to buy into the characters and care what’s happening, and partly because there’s a point with that kind of violence where I have to distance myself or throw up. This is a movie which is impeccably well made but which I didn’t want to watch.
But what of Leo’s Oscar chances? Well, it’s hard to know what a bunch of largely white, largely elderly, largely male industry professionals are going to vote for, other than stuff which makes them feel important (hence last year’s Birdman win, where the Academy voted overwhelmingly for a movie about how tough it was to be just like them and how important happy endings are for actors). So Leo might get the nod from all the guys who feel like they’ve put in the hours and never got the breaks. But for all the work and effort and plain misery Leo had to go through, it’s not much of a performance. For at least 90 minutes of the movie, Hugh Glass never does anything more than grunt; it’s like an extended cut of the wordless opening scene in There Will Be Blood, without the two hours of hypnotic monologuing that gave the silence even more impact. Leo is suffering, but at the end of it I didn’t know anything new, and if I wanted to watch people having a horrible time and learning nothing from it, I’ve got a forty hour work week for that. In grunt related news I am starting to wonder if Tom Hardy has a voice over artist for normal conversation, because I’m struggling to remember the last time I saw him in a movie and could understand a damn word he was saying. We’d been thinking that he was acting that weird voice in the Batman movie, but I’m starting to think mumbling is his real voice, and the other stuff is dubbed in.