Like last year, 2016 is looking like it'll be another Oscar season with no clear favorite for Best Picture (though I have a hunch that the small, excellent Room may be a surprise winner). But unlike 2015, I feel like 2016's Oscar season is one where the supposed Oscar contenders didn't really show up. As I've checked off my list of supposed Oscar favorites -- like Carol, the Big Short, Brooklyn, the Martian, Trumbo, Steve Jobs, etc. -- I've found some nice movies, but nearly all of them have fallen way short of being the year's best. It's like they're Oscar contenders because, with their pedigree, they're supposed to be contenders, not because the films deserve to be nominated on their own merits.
The Revenant is a textbook example of this. Directed by Oscar-winner Alejandro Iñárritu, shot by Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, edited by Oscar-winner Stephen Mirrione, and starring one of Hollywood's best actors (Leonardo DiCaprio) and two of its most promising ones (Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson), you would expect the Revenant to be an excellent film worthy of an Oscar. But it isn't, and I'm confused as to why critics are claiming that it's either. Watch the trailer for the Revenant below.
The Revenant takes place in 1823 somewhere in the mountainous American West as Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a trapper/mountain man who has lived amongst the Pawnee Indians, is leading a military-backed fur-trapping expedition under Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson). After sustaining heavy casualties during a bloody, harrowing attack by an Arikara war party, Glass charts a new course for his group over land. But during their detour, Glass is horrifically mauled by a mother grizzly bear protecting her cubs.
The group attempts to take Glass with them, but with Glass slowing their escape as the Arikara pursue them, Henry offers a reward to cold-hearted trapper John Fitzgerald (Hardy) if he stays with Glass and gives him a proper burial after he succumbs from his considerable wounds. However, Fitzgerald deems Glass to be a lost cause, and while trying to end Glass' suffering, Fitzgerald commits a heinous crime before leaving Glass to die in a shallow grave. But Glass survives (not a spoiler) and begins a torturous trek to a remote military outpost to exact his revenge on Fitzgerald.
With that as the plot, the Revenant is a survival/revenge story and almost nothing else. So if you aren't about to starve, freeze, die of infection, or lack a smoldering fire of vengeance in your soul, you'll find little to relate to in the Revenant -- especially if you're a woman, since the film has essentially no female speaking roles. DiCaprio is undoubtedly one of the most talented and committed actors around, but watching a grizzled, greasy DiCaprio spend roughly two hours dragging, bleeding, drooling, groaning, and shivering himself across a frozen landscape could hardly be described as engaging storytelling. We don't hear Glass' thoughts (they'd probably just say "I'm gonna get that guy!" if we did), and even when he does come across a person, a throat wound prevents him from speaking above a whisper for most of the film. And, in general, I find revenge to be a simplistic, empty motivation that doesn't promote much thought, nuance, or discussion.
Hardy is normally a charismatic presence, but it's hidden behind a scraggly beard and a strange accent that makes much of his dialogue almost unintelligible. Fitzgerald may be a liar and a murderer, but he isn't a satisfying villain -- not only does his racism towards Native Americans echo what nearly every white American of the era felt, but his decision not to risk his or anyone else's life for a man with seemingly just minutes to live seems more than defensible. Henry, while bland, is portrayed as a sympathetic ally of Glass, but he initially shares Fitzgerald's belief that Glass is beyond saving and comes very close to acting on it himself.
The wide-angle cinematography in the Revenant is undoubtedly beautiful, capturing the rugged, stark, snowy splendor of the American West (as well as stand-in locations in Canada and Argentina), and its use of natural light conveys what a wild and unforgiving place the frontier must have appeared to Western explorers. But aside from that and a few impressively choreographed battle scenes, I really can't think of anyone who I would recommend the Revenant to, even amongst my cinematographer friends. The dedication of the cast and crew to film under freezing conditions is certainly admirable, as is the discomfort DiCaprio endured in what he's described as the most challenging shoot of his career. But none of that, despite the pedigree of the filmmakers, necessarily translates into an Oscar-worthy film -- and it certainly didn't for me in the case of the Revenant.
Also, I thought the bear looked fake.