By: Muneeb Arshid & Samar Khan
Winning a single Oscar award is difficult as it is; just ask Leonardo DiCaprio. Winning two in back to back years is nigh impossible with the amount of talent that rises every year. That is the difficult position that director Alejandro G. Inarritu is in after winning the Best Director Oscar in 2014 for Birdman. However, if you were to ask the experts (if there ever can be for Oscar predictions), a good percentage of them would state that Inarritu has a great chance at winning his second consecutive Best Director Oscar for one of the most brutal films ever made, The Revenant.
Just to put this into perspective, the last back-to-back Oscar winner for Best Actor was Tom Hanks more than 20 years ago for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. That’s what Eddie Redmayne is chasing with his role in The Danish Girl (which we will review in a few days). However, Inarritu seeks the back-to-back Best Director crown, which has not occurred since Joseph Mankiewicz won two straight Oscars in 1949 and 1950. That is a very long time indeed for that record to hold on. Does Inarritu have a chance? Some would say he does with what he did with the making of The Revenant. However, there are still those that wouldn’t give him all the credit for this movie, rather citing the exceptional Leonardo DiCaprio and -more importantly- cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his great camerawork as being far more important to the film’s success than Inarritu’s direction. Let’s discuss the film then and put aside this Oscar banter (for now) and decide for ourselves who played a more integral role in making The Revenant as great as it ended up being.
The Revenant is loosely based on the Michael Punke novel, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, and is inspired by the real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his journey to exact revenge. For those worried that it would be more introspective and not quite the revenge thriller promised, fret not. The Revenant is exactly what the title of the novel suggests, that being a story of revenge. In this case, the revenge mission that Glass must embark upon follows a gruesome attack by a bear (yes, that same realistic looking bear from the trailers) and his subsequent “partners” from his hunting team leaving him to die. That team includes the Oscar-nominated performance by Tom Hardy, with Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson being notable actors appearing alongside them. In a bid to avoid burdening you readers with spoilers with more details, I shall refrain from mentioning much more of the film as there already isn’t much of narrative in this film to start with. The film does an excellent job in showing the motivation of Glass and the other characters, admirably combining to allow audiences to know where the story is headed. It’s a straight-up revenge flick with two notable bad-ass performances (though, I would argue that there are actually four).
The film isn’t without its flaws, not that there were many, which I will address before I get into the aspects that work with The Revenant. First of all, for a director who is getting a lot of praise for the making of this film and is the aforementioned odds-on favourite for the Oscar, I don’t think he necessarily should be considered the favourite. There were other technical aspects of this film that heighten its worthiness but in terms of direction, not so much, especially when you have the likes of George Miller and Tom McCarthy who delivered tighter action and drama films, respectively. My gripes with Innaritu in terms of direction concern the pacing and length of the film. A good director knows how to keep the pace of the film stable throughout. A few little ups-and-downs are fine, but with large chunks of action interspersed with numerous slow scenes consisting of walking, that shows me that Inarritu did not know where to cut the film. It’s one of the problems I’ve had with Quentin Tarantino, that he has no clue where to cut his films and remove filler; it’s not a major issue with Innaritu here, but the pacing problems did have an effect as there were audible sighs in our theatre every time a slower scene was displayed. While that may speak to the modern audience’s fascination with frantic battle scenes, The Revenant could have been considerably more selective when deciding where to place the slower scenes. With pacing problems usually comes a length problem and boy was that every prominent. When everyone first found out that the film was closing in on three hours, there was not much of an outcry considering Birdman made great use of its longer runtime. The difference between that and Innaritu’s newest feature is that the former was extremely well balanced and edited throughout, while the latter felt as if Innaritu wanted to showcase more of diCaprio’s acting chops as a man gritting his teeth and fighting through the wilderness so he can win THAT elusive Oscar and paid little attention to making a perfect film.
If Innaritu could be given a do-over to reduce the length, he should jump at the opportunity. The 156-minute runtime was at least 20-25 minutes too long, as it could’ve cut out large swathes of the film in between the Bear attack and Glass finally reaching the outpost. Again, if you’re making a superbly directed film, then these problems aren’t major issues. However, if your work is being judged as being amongst the best from 2015, it had better be flawless. Then again, the way the Academy Awards work, it’s not necessarily a big time issue because of the “unique” way that the voting occurs.
The performances in The Revenant are absolutely what carry this film, most notably from The Bear; seriously, The Bear should win an Oscar for how frighteningly realistic and gruesome its inclusion in the film’s setup was. On the other hand, we could award Leonardo DiCaprio the Oscar and be done with it. The common issue with Leo is that everyone (according to the millions of Facebook/Tumblr/Twitter posts) gets enraged that he’s been snubbed by not winning an Oscar for any of his prior filmography. He’s however, been out-acted by the respective Best Actor(s) each and every year which speaks highly of the quality that he faces year in and year out. This year definitely has to be his year, however, because his competition isn’t necessarily as strong as it has been in past years. His portrayal as Hugh Glass is tough, intense and powerful, not only when he is totally healthy at the beginning but especially more so after the Bear attack. His grit and determination to find Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald and avenge the wrong that was committed against him and his kin is not only inspirational but heroic. Seriously, his expressions of seething hatred or heightened concern (one particular scene where he is hiding in a river and afraid of nearby threats is something that very few actors could pull off) were as powerful as we have seen in any film this year or past years. Outside of Michael Fassbender, who has an outside shot due to exceptional performance in Steve Jobs, Leo should have no competition in finally grabbing that coveted trophy after his masterful turn as Hugh Glass.
Alongside Leo, you have the wonderful Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, who gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the pseudo-antagonist for the film. Tom Hardy should seriously win every award out there for how versatile he is in terms of what you request of him. Want him to do a double role in Legend and absolutely delight doing so? He shall do that. Want Hardy to outshine Leo DiCaprio in the film that the latter is already going to win an award for? He will do that too. In a bid to avoid spoilers because of how his character is integral to the entire story, we’ll keep actual plot details away from this review. Anyway, Hardy brings back his toughness from Legend, combines it with the whispers from Mad Max: Fury Road and the quietness from Locke and channels it all together in this role. To say he plays it very well is the ultimate understatement, with what he delivers being more than enough to hopefully earn him a much-deserved Oscar nomination.
The two roles that bring a sense of humanity to this seemingly desolate landscape are the performances from Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson plays John Henry, the captain of the hunting brigade and is a very humanized and ethical person in this film (his character contrasts strongly with Hardy’s). Poulter however, delivers what may be the most surprisingly poignant performance of the film, as the legendary Jim Bridger who becomes Fitzgerald’s unwitting companion and becomes entangled in Glass’s revenge arc. He holds his own against Hardy (as much as any mere mortal can against the near deity that is Hardy on screen) and serves as the moral compass of the film, in this vast, snowy landscape of death and destruction.
Finally, we move on to the actual technical details we alluded to up above. In regards to the visuals and cinematography, only two words need be spoken: Emmanuel Lubezki. The man that has literally wowed audiences with his fantastic camerawork in Children of Men, Gravity and Birdman arguably outdoes him here in some of the finest camera work we have ever seen on screen. Stunning vistas, the ridiculous beauty of the waterfall and snow-covered wilderness and the appropriate close-ups encapsulating just enough background detail to provide picture-perfect shots are what we get here. As much as we adored Roger Deakins work in Sicario last autumn, Lubezki’s work here is something that all audiences need to witness for its sheer beauty. Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto are in charge of the soundtrack and are excellent throughout, knowing just when to ramp up the bass and knowing when to just allow the ambient sound complement the movement on-screen.
So, after what may be our lengthiest review yet, we have arrived at a conclusion. The Revenant was anchored by arguably the best performances from any crew in 2015 (Hardy and DiCaprio should win their respective Oscars), a stellar job capturing the beauty of the era by Lubezki and a soundtrack that more than holds its own. Its major weakness was its pacing and questionable editing, which isn’t something that detracts too much from our final score. The film is highly recommended to all, although those that tend to be squeamish may want to avoid it or take a barf bag as the wounds displayed are rather graphic. Seriously, make an effort to go and watch it as soon as you can as it is easily one of the better films of 2015.
After careful consideration, we here at the Film Lawyers have decided to grace The Revenant with a stellar grade of a high B+ (8.4/10).