There’s an old awards season adage – the best way to predict who or what will win an Oscar is to simply replace the word “Best” with the word “Most”. This method explains a lot. For instance, when you replace “Best Costume Design” with “Most Costume Design” it is quite obvious why the winner is almost always the most well-regarded period drama of the year. “Best Editing” becomes “Most Editing” and now we know why Star Wars: The Force Awakens got nominated this year when it had doubtlessly some of the worst editing put to screen in some time. “Best Original Screenplay” is actually “Most Original Screenplay” which is to say the most writing, so look for the movie with an surplusage of clever lines and turns of phrase.
You have to take some poetic license when applying this axiom to the acting categories. However, understanding that the Academy is actually rewarding the Most Acting will explain why Leonardo DiCaprio has his most promising shot yet at winning the Best Actor Oscar, that he has so desperately coveted for so many years, for his grueling, spittle spattered, bombastic performance in The Revenant. Similarly, the film itself, thanks to its self-serious tone, torturous production conditions and genuinely striking camerawork, will be a close contender for Most Movie.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has filmmaking strengths that truly shine in this film. The Revenant starts surprisingly strong with an indigenous peoples’ attack on the protagonists’ fur trapping camp. Unlike last year’s obnoxiously contrived Birdman, here, Iñárritu uses long takes with purpose, ratcheting up the tension by bringing the camera close to his actors as they frantically search for shelter from an attack that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. One particularly strong sequence follows a series of kills in one long shot as we shift focus from one killer to killer as they each become a new victim trailing the path of violence. Iñárritu stakes out firm geography as DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass directs his compatriots to a nearby boat for shelter. And all of this action is punctuated by well-considered character beats for our leads introducing Glass, Tom Hardy’s villainous John Fitzgerald and the outfit’s commander Domhall Gleeson’s Andrew Henry. It lays a foundation for some potentially interesting character work and thematic heft.
Iñárritu also still knows how to craft a beautiful shot. The Revenant is filled with astonishing sweeping shots of the Canadian and northern American wildernesses. However, this is where the film runs into problems because, like the movie as whole, those shots don’t mean anything. The character work and thematic heft suggested in the opening sequence is quickly abandoned in favor of weightless scenes featuring Glass suffering through all manner outdoors-y hardship interspersed with Iñárritu occasionally pulling back to show that he can still frame a landscape like no other. But the film’s beautiful, well-composed and expertly executed shots do not function on a cinematic level. Cinema is more than framing a gorgeous image. Cinema is about how that image when combined with movement, sound, and most importantly context come together to create meaning. And here Iñárritu is not creating meaning. He is simply creating images.
And this is precisely what I mean when I say that The Revenant is the Most Movie. It looks like a lot went into it and for many voting members of the Academy that is equivalent to quality. There is a reason that every Revenant article and interview harps on the brutal shooting conditions, the unending hardships that DiCaprio suffered during production and Iñárritu’s pretentious and pointless decision to shoot using only natural light. These factors all come together to create the veneer of high-level prestige filmmaking with none of the substance and none of the weight. It is everything that appears to be high quality cinema and none of the results.
The movie’s driving action comes from Glass’s punishing journey home through the frigid American wilderness. After narrowly surviving a bear attack Glass is near dead. The man in charge of the expedition, Henry, leaves Glass with grizzled Fitzgerald, the young Jim Bridger, played by a blossoming Will Poulter, and Glass’s half-Native son, Hawk played by Forrest Goodluck (in his feature length debut), with instructions to give Glass a proper burial when he finally succumbs to his wounds. Fitzgerald, believing Glass to be a liability, attempts to murder him. Hawk catches Fitzgerald in the act which earns him a knife in the stomach. Fitzgerald then buries a bound and half-lucid Glass alive with the help of Bridger, who grudgingly acquiesces falsely believing Fitzgerald has spotted a band of hostile Native Americans nearby. Glass ends up surviving and begins his long and hazardous trek home where he knows Fitzgerald waits.
This would be a fine set up for a revenge story if Iñárritu actually did anything to develop his characters either before or after the igniting action. The murder/betrayal happens so early in the film that we have little time to see Glass interacting with his son in any meaningful human way. So when Hawk is murdered it reads as something that we in the audience know is bad but we do not feel the actual emotional weight of it, despite all of DiCaprio’s yelling, spittle-spewing and, frankly, overacting. We have no reason to care about Hawk or Glass because they have not been developed as people. It is plot happening to characters rather than characters happening to plot. Both Iñárritu and DiCaprio seem far more interested in showing us scene after scene of wilderness torture porn rather than showing us that Glass is a real person who lost something meaningful and how that loss affected him.
Iñárritu tries to shortcut actual character development by peppering his film with heavy handed hallucinations and dream sequences in which Glass sees visions of his dead son and wife. But again, simply presenting the fact of something occurring is not the equivalent to earning audience sympathy. Throughout the numerous dream sequence/flashbacks this dead wife never utters more than a single line but Iñárritu seems to believe that the simple fact of her being shown on screen is enough to get us on Glass’s side. But, we never learn anything of Glass or his family as people so knowing that he lost this family is only sad on an intellectual level insofar as we are aware that it is supposed to be sad. It never reaches us on an emotional or visceral level.
This lack of character depth ultimately undercuts any thematic resonance the film might have had. Iñárritu’s ham-fisted and utterly unearned ending makes clear that he wants to tell a story about the price of revenge and the cycle of violence. However, because he never bothers to develop any conflict between Glass’s wants and needs he can never present the character with any meaningful choice. Glass wants to seek revenge (probably, he never actually articulates that) but he needs to get out of the wilderness and back to civilization in order to not die.
Fortunately for him, but unfortunately for the drama of the narrative, these two things are in lock-step with one another. Glass’s needs and wants are the same thing. One cannot tell a story about the perils of revenge if the quest for revenge doesn’t cost the character anything and if he is taking the same actions (until the very very end) that he would have taken were he unconcerned with vengeance then the story has no meaning.
The most disappointing thing about The Revenant is that the framework of a good story is here and Iñárritu could have built on that framework if he had made a simple narrative shift – focus the story on Fitzgerald instead of Glass. Hardy is a better actor than DiCaprio, both in this film and in general, and their two performances here show it. Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a chilling, angry, manipulative, conniving man but unlike Glass, with his empty grimacing in place of actual feeling, Fitzgerald is human. I can see his inner life on-screen. While his choices are, quite simply, evil they make sense for the selfish and pragmatic character that Hardy reveals to us. And Fitzgerald is actually making choices, rather than having choices made for him as is the case with Glass, and we see the pay off. We see how character-driven choices bring Fitzgerald into conflict with other characters and that is the essence of drama.
The Revenant could have concentrated on Fitzgerald returning to camp and his increasingly desperate scheming attempts to cover up his crime as he intimidates Bridger and dodges Andrew Henry’s mounting suspicions. Meanwhile the heat on this potboiler is turned up as we cut to the not-actually-dead Glass as he slowly inevitably makes his way back to camp, a symbol of fate and judgment looming larger and larger over Fitzgerald. This would have gracefully buttressed the character Hardy brought to the screen – a man quick to lie and murder for his own gain is finally overwhelmed by his misdeeds.
Sadly, Iñárritu is not interested in this kind of character based drama. Instead we get the fat lump of a movie that is The Revenant. The film closes bizarrely with DiCaprio breaking the fourth wall and staring directly into the camera at the audience before fading to black. It is a striking move that has already inspired many questions. What does this decision mean? Is DiCaprio’s stare supposed to be judging? Pensive? Powerful? Wise? Relieved? It’s not clear to me and I don’t think it’s clear to Iñárritu either.
 Although, I think the Academy goes with the far safer “Spotlight”.
 Or justified defensive action, depending on your perspective