“Thank God!” someone behind us said as the credits began to roll for The Revenant. My friends and I laughed, but really, who could blame them? This was a 156-minute, slow-moving slog through snow, mud, blood, ice, freezing water, and a horse’s guts, filled with unintelligible accents, primal screams, and grunts of pain. It was admittedly a hard movie to sit through with a lot of scenes that either make you wince with shock or look away entirely because of the violence. And yet this movie is one of the frontrunners for the Best Picture Oscar at the end of this month.
You could point to a lot of factors for why that’s the case. For one, the movie’s star is Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Hugh Glass, a scout for a fur-trading company who gets mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. A lot of the awards season narrative has focused on this year being “his turn”. That’s silly, for a lot of reasons. He’s 42, and ostensibly has plenty of years ahead of him to deliver more Oscar-worthy performances.
It’s a great performance, insofar as he has any acting to do beyond the aforementioned grunts of pain. DiCaprio deserves an Oscar, I’m just not sure he deserves it for this movie. He’ll win it, and I’ll be happy for him, because he’s my favorite actor, but when we look back on his career, The Revenant isn’t the movie we’ll point people to as a great showcase of his talents. But the Academy has decided to embrace the narrative, so we’ll have to explain to future generations all the movies he should have won it for that came before.
What you’re in awe of when you leave the movie isn’t DiCaprio, or even Tom Hardy, who gives the movie’s best performance as Fitzgerald, the fur trader who betrays Glass and leaves him to die. No, The Revenant is a movie that leaves you in awe of its look, its cinematography. This is a beautiful movie with many shots that linger on the austere landscapes that engulf and dwarf the story’s characters.
From its opening shot, it’s clear that the movie’s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar for Iñárritu’s last movie, Birdman), is going to use long takes again. Whereas in Birdman, the long takes felt gimmicky after a while, the long takes in The Revenant are usually during the action scenes, and they put you right in the heat of the battle or the bear attack or the chase scene. You don’t have time to notice you’re under the spell of a gimmick. Regardless of how you felt about the story’s limited scope or the violence or the movie’s length, it’s impossible not to be in awe of how the movie looks. That’s something the Academy responds to.
But if you’re looking for something the Academy really responds to, look no further than flattery. Perhaps there are other reasons why director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s approach to filmmaking carries such weight at the Oscars, but if you look at the narrative surrounding his last two movies, it’s hard not to think that the way Birdman and The Revenant have made the industry feel about themselves hasn’t affected their Oscar chances. Birdman’s very story was about a movie actor forgoing superhero movies to find validation in what he considered a higher form of art. Birdman was essentially telling the part of Hollywood that isn’t making Marvel or DC movies, “The work you’re doing matters.”
While The Revenant’s story isn’t specifically appealing to the hard-working film industry, the way it’s been talked about must be. From the get-go, the word on The Revenant shoot was that it was “a living hell”, the implication being that they had to go through hell in order to put this art on your theater screens. The talk surrounding DiCaprio’s performance hasn’t been about the care he took in bringing this story of survival to the screen or the ways in which he inhabited Hugh Glass’s mindset. No, we hear about all the awful things DiCaprio had to endure, from immersing himself in freezing water to eating the raw liver from a bison. Suffering for one’s art makes the art seem more important than it really is, and no one is more susceptible to this phenomenon than artists.
I’m not saying that The Revenant is bad, or that it doesn’t deserve recognition. But it’s possible that The Revenant and its filmmakers are getting extra credit for how physically difficult the shoot was. And given that just last year the Academy awarded an Iñárritu movie that flatters the movie industry, it’s hard not to look at the Oscar love for The Revenant and sense a recurring theme for 2016’s ceremony. The thing is, all that physical difficulty that the cast and crew went through? It shows onscreen. The Revenant is nothing if not a visual masterpiece, and while my friends who saw it with me told me afterwards that they thought The Revenant was great but wouldn’t want to see it again, I immediately wanted to immerse myself in it a second time. The Hollywood flattery paid off.