It’s Oscar season again, so that means a lot of hand-wringing, disappointment, and think pieces on how out of touch the Academy is in this modern era. On top of that this year the pot seems to have boiled over in terms of decrying how “white” the Oscar’s have gotten (for the record I completely agree that the Oscar’s are white-washed, and a strange sort of oppression seems to be at work in the voting system, or the voters in that system). I want to avoid all this, though, because there has been plenty of ink spilled on the issue, and there will be a lot more before it’s all through. I do want to take the opportunity to talk about the perceived slights of this year’s Oscars, a film who people feel illegitimately got into the races over an egregiously overlooked movie (Carol): The Revenant
Marcus already did a write-up for The Revenant, and despite his misgivings of it, many people seem to criticize it even more harshly (at least in the online circles we tend to frequent…ok, it’s really just The Dissolve’s Facebook group). Everyone who has criticized it has come at it with a similar argument too, mostly about the heartlessness at the center of the film. That the movie just feels like a cruel exercise in misery and nihilism for the 2 ½ hour running time. The other criticism is firmly laid at the feet of Leonardo Dicaprio, especially amongst the talk that he may get the Oscar for this film, if for nothing else than to retroactively give him an Oscar that he would have made a good argument for in multiple Oscar years (though I seem to remember this same ‘retroactive’ argument being laid at The Wolf of Wall Street). While I don’t see anything wrong with either of those arguments or the ones that Marcus made in his piece, I have to say I think they are completely wrong (*EXPLOSION NOISE!*). In fact, The Revenant is close to being my favorite film of the year (if not for the beautifully anarchic Tangerine).
To give this a little bit of context, I found Alejandro González Iñárritu’s last (Oscar winning) film, Birdman, to be paradoxically masturbatory and lazy, coming out to a strange pile of incoherent mush that wants to be high art while taking shots at the definition of high art or maybe that’s just irony, but really who knows, look he’s flying! (I just Birdman’d the shit out of that sentence with a long-take and a muddled point.) With this low of an expectation I was entirely surprised with how excited I was about The Revenant. The trailer looked absolutely beautiful and visceral in a way that few films manage to elicit. But then people started complaining. And then they complained more. Soon it seemed as if everyone was having big problems with The Revenant (aside from the seemingly compulsory qualifier, ‘it looks beautiful’ and ‘Tom Hardy is amazing’), and it felt like I was about to walk into a large waste of potential. On the other side, though, I can say that The Revenant is unequivocally beautiful (I found it much more beautiful than even the 70mm viewing of The Hateful Eight) and Tom Hardy does an amazing job. But I will also say that I found the movie tragically human and I think Leonardo Dicaprio put in the performance of his career.
To be clear, The Revenant is a nasty, nihilistic film, but I think that is one of its biggest strengths, because it makes the sparse human moments stand out in comparison. Iñárritu wrote a separate plot line into the film. Where the original story is about a man mauled by a bear, then left for dead by his team, then the man searches for those team members to get his stuff back, Iñárritu tells a story of a father who is mauled by a bear, watches a man murder his son, then goes on to seek revenge against that one man. I have read reviews where people compalain about this choice, as it dilutes what would have been a more compelling and straight-forward nature-revenge story, but I think that misses the bigger picture. Setting these two men against each other gives the audience a comparison between the two, but that comparison is drowned out by the noise going on around them. That noise is composed of Native Americans murdering vast numbers of people to steal goods, where they in turn sell the goods to men who have slaughtered entire villages of Native Americans, who in turn murder more people…It turns cyclical, where the violence being perpetrated by humanistic instincts is indiscernible from the cruel indifference of nature that they are trapped inside of.
On to Leonardo Dicaprio, who has received a lot of flak for, well, doing his Leo thing. While Tom Hardy honestly dissolves into his character, it is hard not to say that Dicaprio stands out as playing to similar aspects that have gotten him simultaneously named one of pop culture’s darling actors and the overrated darling of cinephile circles. The main argument against Dicaprio’s performance in The Revenant is that it boils down to his unique brand of grunting/screaming and that nothing subtle comes through in the performance. It is easy to see where this argument comes from and I wouldn’t argue that his performance can’t easily be taken that way. What I do think the argument misses (and what may be due to the larger problem of people seeing the film as heartless) is that Leo is playing to his situation: a human who finds himself at the disposal of both the cruelty of nature and humanity. There is a frightened animal quality to Dicaprio that helps amplify the visceral nature of the movie, but which also seems a little blank. In this blankness, though, I think you can see what has become of him. He has been veritably broken as a human, and he has now become an animal desperate for nothing but survival. Even in the scene where he begs a Bison liver from a wandering Native, his voice lost through the hole in his throat, he makes small grunts and hand motions much like you would see in a primate. There is a line in Sunshine where, towards the end of the mission, one crew member asks, “Are you trying to remind us of our lost humanity?” Without such an option to vocalize, Dicaprio bears the brunt of lost humanity on his own face, as he dissolves into the harshly beautiful nature surrounding him and the murderous, slash and burn humanity that plague his journey. It is a late scene where we see him laying in cove, scratching “John Fitzgerald killed my son” into the snow that we really get the first hint at the revenge that has been driving him, and I would say this is by design. It is the first semblance of humanity we see shine through from the miserable creature that he has become.
While I don't argue with people who found The Revenant lacking heart, because I can easily see that reading of the film, I think it misses the point by not seeing that lack of heart as a feature of the narrative. This film is about nature in all of its moralless glory, and how humanity fits into the natural world. While the humans in the film reproduce the horrors of nature on a larger scale, with just as little feeling, there are moments of transcendence where humanity shines through and we can see ourselves from outside our survival-instinct roots: Dicaprio's dream of his son in a ruined church (implying the beautiful human instinct of being able to even conceive of the concept of God), Dicaprio and his Native savior gleefully catching snow on their tongues, Bridger (Will Poulter) leaving some food for the lone Native left alive in their decimated village. It is here that the film exists, here where it wants you to find the sublime insertion of humanity into a world that we have left behind but cannot escape. Like an inverted Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy's amazingly violent novel, sociopathic in how unflinchingly it displays the indifference of broken humanity), we see how cruel humanity can be, but in that cruelty we see the small steps that separate us from the cruelty we were born into in Nature.