Leonardo DiCaprio's 'The Revenant' Debuts: Brutal, Gory, Oscar-Bound? (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst offers his take on the prospects of Alejandro G. Inarritu's vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio following its big unveiling.
Fox/Screenshot
Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant'

There is one less awards season mystery tonight, as The RevenantAlejandro G. Inarritu's highly anticipated follow-up to Birdman, the film that brought him three Oscars at the most recent Academy Awards — finally was unveiled.

The epic period drama, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, screened on Monday night for an audience of awards voters and tastemakers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, and its filmmakers undoubtedly hope it will again be a topic of discussion at that venue on Jan. 14 when Oscar nominations are announced there.

But is the film the Oscar force many expected it would be before they saw it?

Reviews have been embargoed until Dec. 4, but the film — which is about a fur trapper, left nearly for dead after a couple of vicious attacks by both men and beast, who then embarks on a quest for both survival and revenge — is already provoking strong reactions, many pro but some con. It is long (running more than two and a half hours), gorgeous and gruesome (several people walked out throughout the movie, apparently unable to take the gore). And while many critics are likely to love it, it is decidedly not everyone's cup of tea.

Inarritu's new film has some of the look of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, with its use of natural light, and Inarritu's own Birdman, with its long takes. (Revenant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot both those earlier films as well.) It also has some of the texture of True Grit (with its furs and animals and horses and snow); the vengeance-centric theme of Django Unchained (both films' protagonists are driven to survive by a desire to settle scores with the murderer of a loved one) and the man vs. nature dynamic of The Grey (both films involve desperate fights to survive and refusals to die in the face of horrific weather conditions and encounters with animals).

There are two things that many of the first viewers of The Revenant seem to agree about, judging from tweets and emails sent following Monday's screening and others scheduled around it over the last 48 hours.

1. DiCaprio — who has received four acting noms over the course of his career, but never has won — couldn't have done a better job and looks like the man to beat in the best actor race. His almost silent performance, with its incredible physical demands, is the sort Clint Eastwood might have given if he had DiCaprio's drive and discipline as a young man. "This was the most difficult film that I think any of us have done," DiCaprio said during a post-screening Q&A, and no one doubted his sincerity. "It was like rock climbing without a rope," Inarritu added. All other serious hopefuls in the best actor race have now shown their hand, and it seems to me that only the similarly Oscar-less Will Smith (Concussion) and Johnny Depp (Black Mass) could pose any real threat to DiCaprio, who is less adept at glad-handing than Smith, if not Depp.

2) Lubezki — who is coming off of back-to-back best cinematography Oscars, for Gravity and Birdman — is, in all likelihood, going to become the first lenser in history to win three consecutive Oscars. (Three others also won two in a row.) His work on this film, which ranges from silhouetted figures and vast landscapes to riveting battle scenes and 360-degree shots, is showy in the very best sense of the word, and certain to be remembered by his peers (who determine the category nominees), and probably the larger Academy (which picks the winners; the names of the cinematographers do not appear on the ballot, and therefore members might not be inclined, as perhaps they should be, to spread around their love and celebrate, say, Oscar-less Roger Deakins for his work on Sicario).

But there are already widely diverging opinions as to whether or not the film itself will click with Academy members. I heard from a few right after the screening ended. One wrote to me, "Disappointed with The Revenant. There is no 'there' there. Long. Brutal. No clear eco message. Violent and pointless. Revenge in the wilderness." Another opined, "An absolute masterpiece. Oscars all around." My personal hunch, based not on anecdotal evidence, but on what the Academy historically has and hasn't gone for, is that the film is a slam-dunk for a best picture nomination, with a very real possibility of winning (it's not entirely dissimilar from past winners Dances With Wolves and Braveheart).

Can anything beat it? Sure. I think The Martian is best poised to do so. That film, which is a Fox release just like The Revenant (which, in turn, is a New Regency production, just like the last two best picture Oscar winners, 12 Years a Slave and Birdman), is fun and a smash-hit at the box office, two terms unlikely to be employed in descriptions of Inarritu's film — plus I think voters will want to give Martian helmer Ridley Scott his first best director Oscar before giving Inarritu a second, and, working backward, are therefore likelier to back Scott's film. But there are certainly other plausible possibilities, too. Perhaps Joy or The Hateful Eight, which have yet to receive their big unveilings. Perhaps Spotlight, propelled by affection from the actors' branch for its incomparable ensemble. Or perhaps an out-of-left-field pick like Straight Outta Compton or The Danish Girl, which are actually about issues that people are dealing with and talking about in the real world today.

Time will tell.

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