|Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant|
Today marks the first wave of reviews for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's The Revenant. The reviews are about what you'd expect for a film whose trailer has been constantly praised for its intensity. It's an epic that critics either found surreal or soulless, which is in keeping with what they thought of Inarritu's other dramas. However, the conversation has whittled down to the familiar old rant: "Leonardo DiCaprio WILL win an Oscar." Of course, there's a popular meme going around where The Academy purposely never rewards him of his talent. As much as I want to believe that this will be an amazing performance, I'm not without skepticism that it's all for naught. While I haven't seen the film, I do honestly believe that maybe we're setting our sights a little too high.
DiCaprio is an actor who has come to commit to roles 100%. He's been the basis for many legendary stories over the past few years. In Django Unchained, his hand famously bled by accident and he still performed the scene. He's constantly seen in interviews saying that "This is the hardest film I've ever shot." While it's not right to judge what an actor considers to be hard, it seems to be a trope of his as he's gotten older. In the case of The Revenant, he is seen in the trailer being mauled by a bear. There's further reports that have been popping up since that he's done a lot for the role, including eating questionable food, sleeping in animal carcasses, and swimming in freezing cold waters. Yes, that does sound hard. However, it's also the type of stuff that makes me shrug and wonder "Are we rewarding the performance or the craft?"
I am not the greatest Oscars prognosticator. I famously rallied that Joaquin Phoenix's performance in The Master was better than Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln. I personally believe that Phoenix's physicality brought more to the role, while Lewis seemed to be acting from underneath horse tranquilizers. Why is this relevant to DiCaprio? It's for one simple reason: I don't think that The Academy is going to reward DiCaprio because of how much he risked his life. They have rarely done this. At most, Oscar bait roles have more to do with weight loss and playing conflicting subcultures that are discriminated against. The roles likely to get Oscars are those that have socially conscious motivations. Yes, Eddie Redmayne recently won for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. I am one of few who found his transformation effective. There was a physical change. However, it was sandwiched in a story about finding hope in times of struggle. I doubt that The Revenant will be that optimistic.
I am not saying that The Revenant cannot be without its charm. I am not even complaining that DiCaprio may give a career-defining performance (though I think it's unlikely). I have always felt skeptical about The Revenant since the beginning. Beyond the production issues, it just doesn't sound like an Oscar movie. It sounds more like an action movie that just so happens to be directed by the man who won big last year with Birdman. With exception to Babel and Birdman, Inarritu has not shown up in the Best Picture race. Speaking as I don't think that this is a thought-provoking drama nor likely to be respected as being as innovative as this year's Best Picture winner, I don't see it standing much of a chance. People will love its intensity, but it will take some serious convincing beyond "It looks cool" for me to believe it has any chance among the prestigious titles.
For those who are likely asking: "Why can't a great performance have great sacrifice?"; just know that I'm not denying that DiCaprio *could* get an Oscar nomination. I'm simply saying that it's not keeping in pattern for radical performances to win. With exception to Lewis, I cannot think of a major winner from the past 30 years who won for sacrificing personal health to as radical a degree as DiCaprio claims in The Revenant. Yes, actors do weird things to be method, but they hardly ever win for it. In fact, the only radical performances that I could think of are by Lewis in My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood (both Best Actor wins). In the former, he famously suffered health problems due to his commitment. In the latter, his "I drink your milkshake" monologue alone is the stuff of masterclass. Maybe I am overlooking great and challenging performances that won, but there's not many. At most, there are physical transformations, but those hardly match DiCaprio's claims about The Revenant.
If The Academy really recognized actors who went above and beyond, there would be more focus on actors like Klaus Kinski. Actors who are more chaotic and sporadic than classically trained, even by accident. There would be more love for shock films that feature truly challenging sights. While I admit that DiCaprio has more clout than any of these, I don't necessarily believe he should be seen as an exception to the rule. Again, The Revenant could be great and thrilling. I just don't believe that, based on footage available, it's going to be some prestigious drama about survival. The Academy rewards a specific type of acting, which is done in your more classical sense of drama. It's not found in similar films like The Grey, even if they are as thought provoking as the Best Picture nominees of that year.
I would personally loved to be surprised by a lot of things this year, especially as The Academy wishes to diversify as Cheryl Boone Isaacs claimed at the Governor Awards last week. Much like how I still don't feel that Mad Max: Fury Road stands a chance, it's mostly because The Academy has failed to make me see them as anything but the same old gang rewarding prestige dramas. They've gotten better on diversity within that genre, but I fail to see how they recognize action films. The Revenant's only defense is that it's from last year's Best Picture winner. Otherwise, it looks like just another fun action movie that people are going to complain about for not winning Best Picture. That is, if the division tapers off into a more positive compromise sooner than later.