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Friday, 15 January 2016

The Revenant

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck.

"I know there's an Oscar around here somewhere."
WILL Leo finally win an Oscar for his role in The Revenant?

It’s one of 12 nominations for the film, and probably the main one on award-watchers’ minds as it’s the fifth time he’s been shortlisted for an acting Oscar.

If he does win, it will be a worthy one, but something of a cumulative compensation. It’s not his best performance, nor his best role – take your pick from his turns in The Wolf Of Wall Street, The Great Gatsby, Django Unchained, Shutter Island, The Aviator, Romeo + Juliet, The Basketball Diaries or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? for that superlative. It will be like when his regular collaborator Martin Scorsese won best director for The Departed – it was a great film but not his best, so the Oscar felt like a recognition of previous effort more than anything.

DiCaprio’s performance is one of many highlights in The Revenant. He plays Hugh Glass, a guide working with a bunch of fur trappers in the 19th century wilds of the USA.

When Native Americans attack the trappers, Glass, his half-native son, and the few survivors ditch their precious furs and attempt to flee back to a nearby fort one week’s trek away. But Glass’ situation goes from bad to worse when he is left for dead in the wilderness as winter falls, leaving him with seemingly impossible odds of survival.

The Revenant has a lot going for it. Aside from DiCaprio’s leading turn, and a strong supporting cast headed by Hardy, it is spectacular to look at.

As he did with Birdman, Iñárritu uses his trademark long takes to great effect, pulling off some incredibly complex feats of staging. The opening skirmish between the trappers and Native Americans is done in only a handful of elaborate (and viscerally violent) shots, while the final showdown between Glass and his nemesis is made all the more gripping by being one constant take.

The cinematography is also gorgeous, capturing the desolation, danger and beauty of the landscapes that are as much a character in the film as the cast.

But there is something distinctly lacking. As impressive and jaw-dropping as it is from time to time, The Revenant is unnecessarily long, with Iñárritu too often enamoured with the landscape and the trees and the sky, or distracted by yet another dream sequence. A more judicious edit could have ramped up the intensity of what is a potent story, as its meandering delivery somewhat defuses the power.

Also lacking is some substance beyond being a simple revenge film. Iñárritu’s delivery of Glass’ story seems to aim for some bigger themes, possibly about the acceptance of death, the importance of honour, finding God/peace, man's destruction of nature or relationship with his environment, but none of these themes ring true.

The saving grace in many ways is DiCaprio. If the Oscar was an endurance race, he would win hands down. Every single moment of his largely wordless performance is gruelling and DiCaprio maintains the rage across the full two-and-a-half hours.

Hardy is also great if indecipherable at times, and Gleeson is good too, recapturing the form of Ex Machina having been the weakest link in the cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

By all reports, Iñárritu put his actors and crew through hell in his quest to capture the savagery and brutality of this story, making for one of the most gruelling shoots since Apocalypse Now.

These stories back up the sensation that The Revenant is the result of a director going mad with power and feeling he can do no wrong. He doesn’t go full Heaven’s Gate – the ill-fated film that sunk The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino’s career – but there are touches of that here, with Iñárritu apparently employing Cimino’s technique of only filming during certain hours of the day to get the right look using only natural light.

At best, The Revenant is a flawed masterpiece. At worst it’s Oscar-bait from a director losing his mind and disappearing up his own butt while he makes his cast and crew suffer on the journey.

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