Tuesday, January 26, 2016
One of the popular legends surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio is the Susan Lucci curse. The latter was famous for being repeatedly nominated for the Emmy for Best Actress on the soap opera All My Children and failing to win every time until her 19th nomination (and 18th consecutive) in 1999. (She was then nominated twice more after that win and lost both times.) Similarly, DiCaprio has been nominated 4 times for acting and once as a producer at the Oscars and lost every time, even when opinion seemed to bend sharply in his favor. That curse may be broken with his performance in The Revenant and in a situation where his may not have even been the best performance on the screen.
The Revenant is the story of Hugh Glass, trapper, hunter, and mountain man and his trek over a couple hundred miles of wilderness after being mauled by a protective mother grizzly. The director, Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu, is already well-known for his preference for fairly intense and very personal stories (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, and, of course, Birdman.) but here he takes it up a level. The audience is dropped right into the action and is forced to catch up (which remains one of my favorite storytelling approaches, as I've noted before), arriving in an active hunting/skinning camp which, moments later, is overrun with hostile Arikara warriors. Forced to flee with his remaining compatriots, Glass later has his unfortunate encounter with the bear and is abandoned for dead. We're told nothing about where or when this takes place, although the dress, flintlocks, and aforementioned hostile Native Americans should give some clue. Being only vaguely familiar with his story, I figured out roughly where they were when Glass mentions avoiding the Missouri River and then when they were when they showed him dreaming about his deceased wife's village being ransacked by US soldiers, as I recognized the uniforms specific to that time period (the 1820s; oh, yes, I am a history nerd.) We're told nothing about Glass' background except what we see via those dreams and given precious little description about the rest of the group or the setting, My girlfriend objected to being set adrift like that, which I can sympathize with, but I loved it. It engenders a focus by the audience to find out what's going on and the film intensifies that focus by paring things down to a very simple premise.
I think the point of the story was essentially to excise everything but Glass' motivation to stay alive and take vengeance on the men that abandoned him (among other crimes.) The story was his will to survive. That's all. There are any number of trappings that make for an interesting setting for that simple approach, but they're mostly set decoration. This was Iñárritu at his most personal. Nothing mattered but that drive. This was not a biopic. This, like most of his films, was a story about motivation. The cinematography contributed to that by alternating dramatic vistas of the Montana countryside with extreme closeups on DiCaprio and Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald. Seeing it in IMAX format as we did made that personal involvement unavoidable. There was a fifty-three-foot image of DiCaprio, caked blood, frozen snot, and all. You were there with him and could feel the cold only slightly lessened by the ferocity of his eyes as he tried to keep crawling, swimming, staggering, and finally walking back to safety. It was a fairly marked turn in style for Iñárritu, who really didn't present any specific approach in his earlier films until Birdman when, in his effort to present a film as a stage performance, he often kept the camera locked at stage distance, even in intimate moments. There was no such restraint here and I think it served the film well.
As noted, DiCaprio's well-known intensity fairly blares off the screen here. This is a step beyond the angst of The Departed or the revulsion to the facade in Revolutionary Road or the jittery determination of The Aviator. All the production took place on location and DiCaprio has mentioned that he essentially spent months in an off and on state of hypothermia. We could see the desperation emerge in a character who, to that point, had been pretty recalcitrant except where it concerned his half-breed Pawnee son, who had become the real focus of his life and the only thing he cared about. DiCaprio does well with every facet of that character and there was no struggle for the audience in focusing on him through the majority of the film.
However, as good as DiCaprio is, the best and genuinely magnetic performance on the screen may have come from Hardy. As a friend of mine mentioned, he didn't even know it was Hardy until after they'd seen the film. The actor lost himself somewhere in Fitzgerald and emerged as a fur trapper in the 19th century. Watching the gears turn behind his eyes as he considers his next move was fascinating and he provides a great deal of texture to the world in which the characters find themselves, as well as being the end goal of what is, at its root, one very long chase scene. There's a great deal of energy in Hardy's performance but it's contained energy; coiled and only released at moments that serve his interests, whereas DiCaprio's is on display at all times. This was their first collaboration since their excellent dual turn in Inception and, interestingly enough, I got a lot of Tom Berenger's Sgt. Barnes from Platoon in Hardy's Fitzgerald in both personality and tone of voice (both of them employing a backcountry Texas growl.) You can hear a lot of it when Fitzgerald is lecturing young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) about the necessities of their (his) choices. Of course, Berenger was also in Inception and, in fact, Hardy's character "plays" him for a bit. (Getting very meta here.)
Since everything was on location, the scenery is spectacular. One moment of Glass clinging to a log as he drifts down the Yellowstone River was particularly great. It was also one of the few moments where Iñárritu let an orchestral score really come through. For most of the rest of the film, the wilderness is the soundtrack, enhanced only occasionally by noise to heighten the tension or soft music to create the dream atmosphere of the visions of Glass' wife. It was a good choice, since it continues in that same vein of bringing the audience into the wilderness with Glass, rather than removing them from it with the sound of a string section.
In fact, the only real drawback to the film as a whole was its length. At 3 hours, it simply went too long. While I understand the desire to impart some of Glass' trial and how strenuous it was, given the rigors of what he had been through on the way back to Fort Kiowa, they could have excised the last 20 minutes of chasing Fitzgerald through the snow and simply had his confrontation with Fitzgerald at the fort. It would have been every bit as dramatic and Fitzgerald still would have been considered an elusive foe and Glass' quest would have been no less traumatic. Getting in one more bloody fight and allowing a pat ending to the Arikara storyline seemed a bit too Hollywood to me and might have reduced what could have been an amazing film to "just" a great one. But in the long view, it's a relatively minor flaw and I'd certainly recommend seeing the film in the theater, as the big screen experience definitely serves the story. Besides, if Glass can travel 200 miles on a broken leg, you can sit in a comfy chair for 3 hours.