By Thomas Infante
The 2016 Academy Awards were remarkable for several reasons, including a fevered controversy regarding the lack of diversity among the nominated films. Amid the storm of public outcry, many viewers’ main concern remained not with social justice, but with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who was nominated for best actor for his performance in “The Revenant.” DiCaprio’s frequent nominations in this category without once winning had become a running joke of sorts, which left many wondering what role would finally win him the award. His portrayal of fur-trapper Hugh Glass, as it turned out, was that role.
Throughout “The Revenant,” Glass is forced through one instance of horrible physical pain after another. Based somewhat on a true story, the film follows Glass’s journey after he is viciously mauled by a bear and subsequently left for dead by his cohort, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Before leaving, Fitzgerald murders Glass’s son in front of him, fueling Glass’s intense desire for vengeance, which keeps him alive throughout his adventure.
DiCaprio’s performance is outstanding — every bit of pain is reflected in his expressions and vocalizations. Much of the film shows Glass alone in the wilderness attempting to survive, and it is here that we can truly admire his prowess as an actor. Engaging an audience with almost no dialogue can be extremely difficult, but effective if done correctly. When Glass struggles to make a fire or climbs inside a hollowed out horse carcass to stay warm, it leaves the viewer truly unsure whether he will live or die.
The strong acting is complimented by exceptional cinematography and great direction, which earned the film several other Academy Awards, as well. Emmanuel Lubezki, who previously worked on films like “Gravity” and “Birdman,” handled the cinematography for “The Revenant.” The film takes place in the early 1800s in the frontier territory that would later become North Dakota and South Dakota. The sweeping, undisturbed landscape is the focus of many beautiful shots, which only emphasizes Glass’s plight while stranded in the wilderness.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, who just last year won several Academy Awards for writing and directing “Birdman,” is the director of the film. The constant stream of violence and suffering gives the film a raw and intense atmosphere that is not often achieved in cinema. The film’s focus on Glass’s survival against overwhelming odds through sheer force of will keeps the viewer interested and in suspense.
Another subplot has Glass seeing repeated visions of his deceased Native American wife, which haunt him throughout his journey. These visions make the entire trip seem even more surreal, adding to the already unbelievable tale. Although there are points in the movie during which Glass’s survival seems ridiculous given the circumstances, it is never absurd enough to disengage the viewer, so long as one can suspend their disbelief.
A truly great film is one that leaves the viewer stirring with emotions long after the credits have rolled. Thanks to a remarkable performance by DiCaprio, beautiful cinematography and strong direction, “The Revenant” is an extremely compelling ride that will leave any viewer stunned.