In 2006, Jackass Number Two was released and featured some of the most vulgar images of self-destruction imaginable. Leader of the pack Johnny Knoxville got mauled by bulls and yaks; had a side of a building fall on his head; rode a rocket that almost killed him; and was bitten by snakes in a ball pit. The performer sacrificed his body for the sake of entertainment and received mostly negative buzz from awards season (IMDb only lists a nomination from "The Stinkers Bad Movie Awards"). What does this have to do with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's The Revenant? Subject-wise, not very much. However, our approach to digesting them as valued entertainment is itself problematic. The only difference between the two is that The Revenant has an actual story, lead by Leonardo DiCaprio's much-hyped performance that features health-risking stunts (you know, "for art")... and he is somehow supposed to earn an Oscar for it instead of going the route of Knoxville's comparatively humble, no awards approach where he ends up in the hospital countless times to a parade of laughter. The fact of the matter is that The Revenant is an ambitious film, but that's really all it is.
Back in the summer, Inarritu made a claim to the press that his production was having some problems, some even borderline Heaven's Gate problematic. Cast and crew were quitting left and right while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was attempting to capture only natural lighting that often delayed everything. However, the most fitting piece of news retrieved from this film is that an extra was noted to have been dragged in the freezing cold naked, almost losing his genitals in the process. While watching the opening scene, you are immediately thrown into Inarritu's ambitious vision. It's beautiful and dangerous in the ways that the hype was suggesting. Within that scene came the naked extra, whose screen time racked in less than 30 seconds. It is a fitting metaphor for the film's futility, where physical sacrifice amounted to very little of what made the film any good. To make matters worse, I doubt anyone will ever care that the naked man (whose name many will never learn) almost lost his genitals. It also seems not very worth it, considering how inconsequential to the story it actually is.
The film itself is gorgeous in all of the ways that Inarritu was wanting us to believe. The cinematography makes the wilderness such an awe-inspiring experience that gets buried into your psyche. It feels cold and wondrous in ways that a manic depressive Terrence Malick would only dream of. However, the fact that the shots of scenery outweigh the rest of the film is itself problematic. The story is about the futility of man, and thus is needed to be grotesque and mean spirited. Considering that this is largely a one-man show via DiCaprio, it's a lot of violent and dour concepts that feel more like an attempt to point out how cruel the natural world is. The issue is that this is all that it offers. Once DiCaprio gets mauled by a bear, its pretty much a repetitive series of masochistic acts that lack any stronger narrative beyond primal instinct. Sure, the direction goes in interesting directions, but maybe the writers should've at least found a way to make the sufferer have some empathy. All he really does is yell in frustration before reaching an unearned ending that is meant to be existential bliss. It is nothing but masochism disguised as art.
Then there's DiCaprio in what many are wishing was his shot at Oscar gold. It makes sense why one would think that, especially if you just read press notes. He does a lot of insane things in this film - stuff that stunt actors usually get no credit (let alone Oscars) for. He risks his health and gives one of the least glamorous performances of his career. However, it's also among his worst for a specific reason. While one could get caught up in the torture, DiCaprio never gives his character more than a few grunts to communicate his emotional depth. There's very little acting involved in his actions. He simply risks his health time and again, and that's supposed to be the shocking appeal. Considering how inept the story is and how none of the characters have a complex core, why do any of the actions matter? Inarritu has made a great looking film without any sense of humanity, thus totally ruining the majestic nature of it. DiCaprio's performance is soulless and mostly just an excuse for him to later brag that he sacrificed himself for a performance that was itself phoned in otherwise. To bring back the Jackass Number Two comparisons, Knoxville at least had personality and even if you didn't care, there was a visual stimulation to his form of masochism. DiCaprio may do things very similar, but the press around the film feels whiny and self-entitled compared to Knoxville.
DiCaprio doesn't deserve any Oscar attention for this film. The Revenant barely does in other categories, either. It's a film whose goals are more expressed than achieved. Yes, the imagery is beautiful and DiCaprio gives a very unique performance - but they're in many ways more experimental and dull than overtly successful. The one catch of cinema usually is that one needs to care about their protagonist. There is never that opportunity for DiCaprio, even if you count the overrated bear attack; a moment that itself goes on for too long without any deeper value than "can you believe that he got attacked?" One cannot underestimate the value of DiCaprio's sacrifice, but as time passes on, there's only one thing that will matter: the entertainment value. Will people really care that he waded through cold water and ate barbaric things? Not really. Many people have faked it in more endearing films. The whole idea of sacrificing for art is incredibly important, but when it comes at a cost of story - then you may as well just take some budget cuts.
The Revenant is a film that wants to be great by being real. This is a fine idea, in theory. There have been good films about surviving in the wilderness (The Grey), but this feels like it forgot to install personality into its characters. All it really has is set pieces that are meant to be shocking, but cannot be without the missing empathy to its characters. DiCaprio may deserve points for doing extremely stupid things for art, but will anyone who watches this blindly in 10 years care? It will look good, but without story - it will not be good. DiCaprio is usually better than this. Of course, it is just a reflection on how society needs to evaluate its priorities if an actor in a film gets an Oscar for sacrificing himself in ways that stunt actors (who have done far worse for no credit) will never get. This goes back to the idea that "pain = good." DiCaprio only will get nominated because he did some "bold" stuff. You know who else did? Johnny Knoxville. Either you accept DiCaprio and Knoxville did similar things without equal reception (I'm not saying that Jackass Number Two was Oscar-worthy), or admit that this film is more of an excuse to exploit torture without any other valuable element.