A London-based art collective called The Line has released the perfect online game for the Oscar season. Called Leo’s Red Carpet Rampage, the arcade-style flash game lets you play as Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars, chasing the statue that has eluded him for more than two decades. “Hi, I’m Leonardo DiCaprio and I really need to win the Oscar,” says the intro. “Let’s do this!”
The Rampage is designed as a fun game for DiCaprio fans. But it is hard to miss its clever commentary on the actor’s career. DiCaprio has been nominated for six Academy Awards: five for acting and one for producing. But he has won none. Worse, of his 138 nominations for various prestigious awards, he has won just 34.
There is an argument to be made that DiCaprio has not received the kind of critical acclaim that he deserves. It is an easy one to make, given his well-reviewed performances over a wide range of films and his poor nomination-to-win ratio. But there is, on the other hand, a far more difficult argument, which could well be the right one: that he just doesn’t have the kind of acting prowess everyone would like to believe he has.
Take his latest, The Revenant. It stars DiCaprio as a frontiersman who battles nature and Native Americans to track down the man who left him for dead. An epic revenge drama based on a novel of the same name, The Revenant is inspired by the experience of Hugh Glass, a fur trader, hunter and explorer best known for having survived a savage attack by a grizzly bear.
The film shows Glass guiding a crew of trappers who are forced to go on the run after they are attacked by rampaging natives. He has a half-Pawnee son called Hawk—which, in the eyes of some trappers, makes him a man not to be trusted. Chief among them is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, nearly stealing DiCaprio's thunder), a cunning, violent and twitchy-eyed man whose distrust of Glass borders on hate. Fitzgerald was once almost scalped by Native Americans, which made him a great believer in using guns to “shoot civilisation into the savages”, including even boys like Hawk.
As is his wont, DiCaprio gives his all to portray Glass. His face is pallid and weathered, his beard is long and suitably grubby, and his body, taut to the point of being emasculated. It is, to state the obvious, an impressive physical transformation.
Alas, such transformations cannot be termed ‘acting’. They just show how committed an actor is to his role. And, commitment is something method actors like DiCaprio excel in—he reportedly spent nearly a year in harsh and remote locales—in snow-capped peaks and in the untamed wild—shooting for The Revenant. And he deserves all the accolades coming his way, and perhaps even the Oscar nomination, on account of that commitment alone.
But it is hard to call what he does on screen as ‘acting’ in the true sense of the word. As Glass, DiCaprio is seen negotiating perilous terrain while being hounded by enemies—he scrambles up ridges, tumbles down cliffs, swims across rapids and faces death by exposure and starvation. How much of this can be called acting is debatable. It is more like a talented actor testing the limits of his endurance and coming up trumps.
One scene that exposes the weakness of DiCaprio’s ‘acting’ is when Glass is shown breaking down while clutching the body of his murdered son. Here is a father, wounded physically and psychologically, miles away from civilisation and exposed to the elements, grieving for his son, the murder of whom he was forced to watch. The scene is an intense, visceral one, and it is meant to define and set the stage for the rest of the film. But, as DiCaprio plays it, one feels no emotion, no empathy. You watch the grieving Glass glassy-eyed.
In the past decade, DiCaprio has portrayed a wide range of characters in an even wider range of genres—from an Irish mob leader (Gangs of New York) to an eccentric millionaire (The Aviator), from a wily smuggler (Blood Diamond) to a high-strung undercover cop (The Departed). In each of these performances, DiCaprio goes the whole nine yards to make his characters authentic and believable. But often, he falls short of making his performances ‘feelable’.
His commitment as a performer and his inability to draw empathy offset each other. The Revenant is a perfect example of that. As Glass, DiCaprio is in almost every frame. He crawls, limps, swims, floats and travels great distances, but one never travels with him. One watches the slog from a distance, and admire.
In fact, admirable is the word that best describes The Revenant, which is directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Mexican auteur who won the Academy Award last year for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture for Birdman. It is obvious that Inarritu took a big gamble by deciding to make The Revenant. The film’s production was notoriously protracted and gruelling: actors had to cancel shooting for other films, there were several reported outbreaks of fisticuffs among crew members, the budget overran alarmingly, and the locations were so unforgiving that DiCaprio caught hypothermia.
The end product, however, looks dazzling. The Revenant is technically and aesthetically brilliant, thanks mainly to Emmanual Lubezki, the cinematographer. The money shot is the bear attack, which could have won the Oscar for best action choreography, had there been one. The Oscar for cinematography is a lock, though.
Is the film authentic? Yes. The set designs, costumes and effects are top-notch. Is it visceral? It has loads of violence—necks are slashed, torsos are speared and a horse is disemboweled. So, yes.
Is it immersive? Certainly not. The last thirty minutes or so can test your patience. And there is an argument to be made that the ending was a bit too schmaltzy for such a brutal film. But then, The Revenant is a made-for-Oscar film, so it had to be that way.
Film: The Revenant
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter