Three Notes on The Revenant

1.  Next month at the Oscars Leonardo DiCaprio will probably win Best Actor for his portrayal of Hugh Glass, a mountain man who crawls on his hands and knees across miles of frozen tundra so he can get revenge on a fellow trapper named Fitzgerald who tried to bury him before he was fully dead. DiCaprio's performance isn't my favorite of the year but I do see why so many people are in love with it. Glass suffers some serious damage to his throat in the Revenant's first act, rendering him more or less mute for most of the movie’s runtime, which means that DiCaprio has to convey most of Glass’ pain and frustration using nothing but his baby blue eyes. That's a real challenge for any actor and DiCaprio definitely pulls it off - you would have to be an empathy-less sociopath to meet Leo’s anguished gaze and not feel all of the feels.

Still, I’m not sure if I would categorize what DiCaprio does in the Revenant as “acting” so much as “playing make believe”. I know that those terms are a little too idiosyncratic to immediately convey what I'm trying to get at, so let me clarify that semi-dubious distinction: in my mind a performer that creates a character who seems like they extend beyond the immediate parameters of the story is "acting" while a performer whose character basically just exists to illustrate a single scenario is merely "playing make believe."

For example, Marlon Brando is acting in the Godfather because his Vito Corleone seems like a real person: you feel like that character continues to exist even when he is not on screen; you can imagine what his life was like before the story ever started. (This is a big part of why all of the young Vito stuff from Godfather Two works so well.) Meanwhile the record producer who wakes up with a horse’s head in his bed and then screams – well, that guy is just playing make believe. We don’t spend enough time with him to ever ask ourselves “hmm, I wonder what that guy was like as a child…” And even if we did ask ourselves that question we'd never be able to answer it because we just don't have enough information about him at our disposal.

So when I say that DiCaprio is "playing make believe" in the Revenant I'm not saying that he gives a bad performance, I'm just saying that Hugh Glass doesn't seem like a character that exists beyond the narrow confines of this particular adventure. Part of that is that Glass' silence makes him a remote character, but even before he becomes mute he is very tight lipped about his personal life. We know that Glass has a son; that he speaks several languages, including some Native American tongues; that he’s supposed to be a first rate tracker; that he’s a hard-ass who refuses to quit no matter how daunting the odds are. But all told that isn't a lot, certainly not enough to give us much of a sense of who he was as a person, because being good at your job is not much of an indication of what you like and dislike when you are off the clock. I kept trying to imagine what that character was like as a child and I just couldn’t, and I also struggled to picture what his life would look like once he had his vengeance. In the end I just had to accept that he was a man with a thin past and a non-existent future.

In fact, the only character in the whole movie that feels like a flesh and blood person is Glass' foe Fitzgerald, who is played by the irrepressible Tom Hardy. That’s not just because Fitzgerald is one of the only characters in the Revenant who speaks about his past – although we do learn more about him in his 90 second monologue about the time that he got partially scalped in battle than we learn about Glass during the entire two and a half hours he's on screen. And that is not just because Fitzgerald is the only character who isn't emotionally monochromatic - although the fact that he can be amused or cowardly or mean certainly makes him the most compelling character in otherwise resigned cast. No, that’s mainly because when you see how smug / self-interested / whiny Fitzgerald acts as an adult you can easily imagine what a little shit he was as a teenager, and you can also imagine him continuing to be an asshole till he's old and gray (...assuming, of course, that Glass doesn't kill him first.)

So, yes, Glass and Fitzgerald inhabit the same story, but they do so in very different ways because Fitzgerald feels like a real person that you could meet if you could only travel back in time two centuries while Glass feels like a not-very-subtle metaphor for the resilience of the human spirit. And yet Leo is probably going to take home a little gold man very soon while Hardy is probably going to lose to Sylvester Stallone for Creed...

2. The Revenant is also getting a lot of praise for its cinematography – which is quite understandable, because cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki really captures both the beauty and the frigid danger of the story's near-arctic setting. Every frame feels like a painting where the light is just perfect…

Unfortunately,  I say that as another semi-backhanded compliment because I don't think every frame of a movie should look like a painting. The problem is that still images and moving images require very different compositional styles. It is perfectly fine (if not actually preferable) for a still image to be visually complex because every little bit of additional detail is another chance to ensnare a viewer's attention. However, movie goers don’t have the luxury of pausing a theatrical release so they can absorb every inch of a frame, which is why it is better for a movie to stick to meat-and-potatoes shots unless there's some compelling reason to get fancy. Which is why I foundthe Revenant's unceasing commitment to fanciness to be so distracting...

Lubezki and director Alejandro González Iñárritu have stocked this film with deep focus shots where the human figures in the foreground and the wilderness behind them are equally clear. That certainly creates some striking images, and it also feeds into the film's man-vs-nature themes, but I still think it’s a bad decision because it violates the basic language of cinema. Basically, it makes the Revenant feel like a conversation with a robot who emphasizes every syllable in every word equally - you always understand what it is saying, but it is still seems unnecessarily alienating. I generally don't mind having to put in some work to understand an art film, but at a certain point in the Revenant I got tired of having to scan every frame to try to figure out what Iñárritu wanted me to be looking at.

Finally, I found the film's cinematography to be frustrating because Lubezki and Iñárritu's aesthetic choices undercut the realism of the story they are trying to tell. The Revenant is a period piece but it looks very modern, in large part because its shots are too crisp and clean to look old timey. I just don’t understand why they would put such effort into making what is front of the camera look so realistic – ie, they actually made Leonardo DiCaprio eat a real raw bison liver when they could have easily faked that using movie magic – only to put so little thought into how the camera itself would impact how realistic the movie felt. This is a film that is supposed to look like the 1830s, but it looks very much like it was made in 2015, and that isn't right.

3. As you might have guessed I'm a little on the fence about the Revenant's Oscar chances. On the one hand I don't think this is Leo's best performance, but then again he does have a deep enough body of good work that I'm not going to be too upset if he wins an acting award. And while I found the Revenant’s cinematography to be frustrating I get why so many people are bowled over by Lubezki's immaculate compositions. (That said, he did just win back to back trophies for his work on Birdman and Gravity and going three for three seems mighty excessive to me... But then again, Oscars are meaningless in the grand scheme of things so who cares?)

(Well, obviously I care or else I wouldn't be writing this...)

However, this is one award that I'm not on the fence about: I really don’t think that the Revenant should win best picture.

Oh, sure, I understand why people like it; I'm not denying that it is impressive on a technical level, and I get that it's a good marriage between art and commerce (which is a best picture's sweet spot.) No, I’m against this winning because I can already tell you that the Revenant will age poorly.

Consider this: twenty five years ago Oscar voters had to choose between the Dances With Wolves, which is four hours long and contemplative, and Goodfellas, which is episodic and relentlessly entertaining, for best picture. At the time that would have been a close call - but that's only because voters would have just seen both films in the theater, where the epic Wolves would have had a slight advantage over its zippier but less serious competitor. However, as the years have passed Kevin Costner's western has aged poorly because no one is ever in the mood to watch a movie that long and that serious, while Goodfellas has aged very well because it is the sort of movie that's perfect for rewatching on cable. Thus nearly everyone today thinks that Goodfellas got robbed when it lost to Dances with Wolves back in 1991, even though that decision probably made sense at the time.

Similarly, The Revenant is looming large over its competitors right now because it is painting on a wider canvas than, say, Brooklyn… But will the Revenant's majestic vistas still be impressive enough on a small screen to cover up the story’s utter emptiness? Even if we're generous and say that they will – after all, home theaters are becoming more and more impressive - that still doesn’t answer the larger question of who is going to voluntarily sit through a 156 minute long revenge tale that is unrelenting and mostly silent months after it has exited the conversational zeitgeist…

Don't get me wrong: I'm not arguing that the most rewatachable film should automatically win best picture. After all, Spotlight is such a devastating movie that I imagine most people won't want to watch it twice, and The Big Short derives a lot of its power from how of-the-moment it feels, but that doesn't mean that either of them is less well made than the very cable friendly Mad Max Fury Road. But I am saying that the Oscar voters need to think about how their choices will echo in posterity. It's fine for Leo to win an award for an undeserving performance because that just makes up for all the other awards he should have won but didn't. And it is also fine for Lubezki to win his third Oscar because no one would ever dispute that he is one of the most respected craftsmen working in Hollywood today. But Goddamnit, Academy, you have to recognize that your credibility has been slipping for the last couple of years and that giving your top prize to a blood-soaked Dances with Wolves stand-in just because it is hot at this exact moment in time is not going to look good in the long run. I don't care if you anoint the Big Short, or Spotlight, or hell, even the incredibly sweet but inarguably minor Brooklyn, but don't give it to this overcooked hunk of macho fluff, I beg of you.

The Revenant on IMDB

Winner: Draw