Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the gutsiest performances of his career in “The Revenant,” a compelling survival-turned-revenge tale based on the harrowing, true-life travails of legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass nearly 200 years ago.
On a fur-trading expedition in the 1820s led by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), Glass in a fateful moment finds himself alone in the wilderness, when he’s confronted by a vicious grizzly bear. And while he is brutally attacked (in one of the most ghastly scenes on the big screen in recent memory), it’s only the beginning of Glass’ troubles. Shredded and left in shock by the attack, Glass isn’t expected to survive as infection sets in.
His near lifeless body too burdensome for his hunting party to carry through the unforgiving wooded landscape, Glass is left in the care of his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the young and impressionable Jim Bridger (Will Pouter), and John Fitzgerald (a frightening Tom Hardy). A crazed mercenary who is determined to leave the severely wounded hunter for dead, Fitzgerald resorts to extreme measures to destroy Glass and the last remaining member of his family, and attempts to bury the hunter alive. Glass, however, somehow miraculously survives, and once he regains his strength, sets out on a path of revenge. Running parallel to Glass’ story is the trek of a Native American tribe searching for a lost member, and eventually their paths intertwine.
Fresh off a trio of Oscar wins for “Birdman,” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s constructs a riveting tale with “The Revenant,” using his trademark long tracking shots (unlike “Birdman,” there’s more than one here) to give the film a fresh, point-of-view feel. However, with the Oscar success of “Birdman” comes clout, and Inarritu clearly used his trio of statuettes as leverage in getting the film’s extensive final cut. Clocking in at 2 hours and 36 minutes, “The Revenant” is too long for its own good, even though it moves along much quicker than the plodding 2 hours and 49 minutes of “The Hateful Eight.”
While the film is engaging, the whole idea of Glass surviving such of a horrific attack is suspect, even though his tale is true. There are several moments in the film that seem far-fetched, almost making you wonder just how much the filmmakers embellished the tale for the sake of entertainment. That’s not to take away from the film’s stellar performances by DiCaprio (who speaks less than a dozen lines in English and a few more in a Native American dialect) and the barely-recognizable Hardy, who each go to great lengths to give their characters some stark realism. DiCaprio, a vegetarian, even went so far in one survival scene to eat the raw liver out of a buffalo carcass. Now that’s commitment.
For lack of better words, Domhnall Gleeson has taken command of the big screen in the past year. It’s rare that an actor gets to star in one acclaimed film, much less four of them, and in a one-year frame, to boot.
Beginning with sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina” in April and followed by the coming-of-age drama “Brooklyn” in November, Gleeson took charge in December as the villainous General Hux in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” before serving alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in the limited release of “The Revenant” on Christmas Day.
Opening in theaters nationwide Friday, “The Revenant,” directed by “Birdman” Oscar winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, tells the harrowing true-life tale of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a hunter on a fur-trading expedition in the 1820s who is left for dead by his hunting party after being brutalized by a bear. Hardy plays John Fitzgerald, a fellow hunter who betrays Glass and leads others to believe that he’s dead, and Gleeson plays the pivotal role of Capt. Andrew Henry, the Rocky Mountain Trading Company founder and expedition leader who becomes caught up in Fitzgerald’s deceptive tales.
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Gleeson, 33, said that Inarritu’s shoot in the elements easily provided him with his most challenging role to date; even more difficult than what he experienced working on director Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” in 2014.
“I had to lose a lot of weight for ‘Unbroken’ and that was really hard. You just think to yourself, ‘Well, it won’t be this hard again.’ Then you cut to a year later and you’re saying, ‘What the hell?’ I wasn’t expecting it,” Gleeson said, laughing. “The shoot was intense, but I was always expecting it to be intense.
“The notion was, if we really challenged ourselves, if we were able to put any of that into the camera — a certain amount of pain, a certain of amount of really battling the elements — that maybe we’d be giving the audience something they hadn’t seen before. I think we really got there,” Gleeson said. “The film is special, and I know when I was watching it recently, I could feel it. It will never feel what it was really like being out there in the elements again, but watching it really evoked those feelings. I felt like I was back out there.”
Gleeson, a Dublin native and the son of acclaimed actor Brendan Gleeson, admitted that there were times when he asked himself, ‘What the hell am I doing here,’ but never during the workday.
“It was normally in the evening when the day was over and your body was sore,” Gleeson said. “During the day you just want to get the work done to the best it could be. The one thing we didn’t forget was that fact that this film could be brilliant. There are very limited opportunities in a lifetime to be in a film like this, so you don’t forget that aim.”
Staged in such remote locales as Montana, British Columbia and Calgary, “The Revenant” was marked by an unusually long shoot of nine months, because Inarritu and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, took great pains to film the scenes in natural light. On top of that, the elements weren’t exactly cooperative.
Gleeson said he admired Inarritu’s commitment to “The Revenant” and what he required of his actors, no matter how difficult things would become.
“Alejandro said very early on that compromise wasn’t an option when it came to this film — that we were all in, or not in at all,” Gleeson said. “That’s the sort of attitude that all the greats have. It’s one or the other. If they’re all in, they’ll do whatever it takes. That can be very tough, but if you’re going to make something extraordinary — and not many people make anything extraordinary — if you’re going to do it, then that’s the place to start from.”
Apart from the intensity of shooting in such harsh elements, Gleeson, like his co-stars, had the weight of history on their shoulders playing real-life people — fur trappers in a time where life wasn’t exactly so warm and fuzzy.
“We have time to think about now that they didn’t have,” Gleeson said. “If you were out doing what those men were doing at that time, minute to minute, the first thing on your mind was survival. That was foremost. That’s the way it still is for a lot of people today, but for me, I have time to think about work, people and whatever else I want to do, like watch a Netflix show. If I want coffee now, I can pay a couple bucks for a coffee.”
As for his character specifically, since “The Revenant” isn’t specifically about Capt. Andrew Henry, per se, his personal story was utilized in a different sort of manner, Gleeson said.
“Playing a real-life character weighs a lot on your mind, but the important thing is to be the right thing for the film — 1823 is a long time ago, and Captain Henry was known as being a very good and capable leader of men, and a good man himself,” Gleeson said. “He was hugely respected by the men he led, and in our story, we don’t quite start with him in that scenario. Things are a little out of his control, probably more so than they ever were in real life.
“However, I do feel we get him to the place where he existed by the end of the film,” Gleeson added. “I think my character’s arc is to grow into the man you would read about if you looked up the history of the times he lived in.”
The 87th annual Oscars are Sunday night, bringing to an end another controversial awards season. At this point with all the guild awards decided, it’s pretty clear who and what film will win the big prize, although I personally hope for some big upsets just to keep the perennial overlong night interesting.
As usual, my predictions aren’t a reflection of who and what I hope will win, but educated guesses based on voting trends throughout the awards season. Of course, no one — no one — is a sure thing (remember Juliette Binoche upsetting Lauren Bacall?), so included in the picks is a wild card in each major category.
Best Supporting Actress nominees: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”; Laura Dern, “Wild”; Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”; Emma Stone, “Birdman”; Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods.”
Analysis: This category will likely signal the overrated “Boyhood’s” only big win for the night, but if any categories have upsets, it’s the supporting acting ones. Perennial nominee Streep generally bulldozes everyone she’s up against, and this year is no different. Arquette’s performance is the best of all those in “Boyhood,” but all the awards love for the movie is still mystifying.
Count Arquette’s win as the Academy’s tip of the cap to the year’s most gimmicky movie. A Dern win would be a salute to not one, but three Hollyw
ood acting stalwarts: Dern and her parents Bruce Dern (who should have won for “Nebraska” last year) and Diane Ladd, but don’t hold your breath.
Will Win: Arquette.
Should Win: Streep.
Potential Upset: Dern.
Best Supporting Actor nominees: Robert Duvall, “The Judge”; Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”; Edward Norton, “Birdman”; Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”; J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash.”
Analysis: Not only has Simmons proven to be a great actor who has consistently delivered in his roles over the years, his turn as the vitriolic jazz conservatory conductor in “Whiplash” is hands-down the best nominated performance across all of the categories.
“Birdman” is shaping up to be this year’s awards juggernaut, and Norton — who is brilliant in the movie — could be a benefactor of that. Duvall, who is terrific as usual in “The Judge,” would be a shoo-in as a sentimental winner, but he already has an Oscar thanks to “Tender Mercies.”
Will Win: Simmons
Should Win: Simmons.
Potential Upset: Norton.
Best Actress nominees: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”; Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”; Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”; Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”; Reese Witherspoon, “Wild.”
Analysis: With five Oscar nominations (including this year) to her credit, Moore is long-overdue. But this award isn’t being earned by Moore for sentimental purposes: Her turn as an early-onset Alzheimer’s disease patient is heartbreaking and emotionally exhausting, and one that stays with you long after the credits roll.
Cotillard (who previously upset Julie Christie, oddly enough, in Christie’s Alzheimer’s-themed movie “Away From Her”) and Witherspoon don’t have a chance because they’re won in the category before and it’s hard to repeat, and Jones, while great, is simply over-matched in the category. An upset for Pike’s ultimate ice queen role in “Gone Girl” would be a way to rectify the Academy huge oversights in several categories — including Best Picture and Best Director (for David Fincher) — in what is easily one of the best films of the year.
Will Win: Moore.
Should Win: Moore.
Potential Upset: Pike.
Best Actor nominees: Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”; Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”; Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”; Michael Keaton, “Birdman”; Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything.”
Analysis: Keaton’s career performance in “Birdman” has dominated most of this year’s awards season, and since he’s sidestepped personal controversy (i.e., he’s said all the right things in his acceptance speeches and has been genuinely gracious) the award has been his to lose. Keaton is brilliant in the role with a fine mix of comedy and drama, but Cooper took the biggest risk with his moving, understated turn as late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.
It’s not a flashy role, but yet somehow you can sense the inner-turmoil of Kyle as deals with the stress of the battlefield and suppressing his emotions on the home front. It’s an amazingly subtle role and a gutsy move for an Cooper since it flies in the face of Hollywood’s political ideas.
As much as Cooper deserves to win, the only possible person capable of upsetting Keaton is Redmayne, who gives a “My Left Foot” Daniel Day-Lewis-caliber performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” His unlikely Screen Actors Guild upset opened the door for a possible upset at the Oscars, but don’t bet on it. Carell’s and Cumberbatch’s nominations are well deserved, so don’t be surprised to see future noms, especially for the latter.
Will Win: Keaton.
Should Win: Cooper.
Potential Upset: Redmayne.
Best Picture nominees: “American Sniper”; “Birdman”; “Boyhood”; “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; “The Imitation Game”; “Selma”; “The Theory of Everything”; “Whiplash.”
Analysis: The race all along this awards season has appeared to be an even match between “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” but then a surprising surge with “American Sniper” (and a $300 million North American box office) with a strong showing in the nominations suddenly made the race that much more interesting.
Conventional thinking at the moment points to a big night for “Birdman,” since it has taken top honors with the Producers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America (for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – who will also win the Best Director Oscar) and the Screen Actors Guild Best Ensemble Award (the equivalent for a Best Picture prize) — so don’t be shocked when it when it wins the Best Picture Oscar.
As refreshing and inventive as “Birdman” is, remember 2015 as the year the chickens come home to roost on Hollywood. The Academy will appear completely out of touch with Middle America for not naming “American Sniper” its Best Picture; even more so if it goes the upset route and names the low-budget, gimmicky “Boyhood” as “the best.”
A film that rightfully puts the focus squarely on the American soldier and his or her families (and avoids the politics of war), “American Sniper” has had a profound emotional experience on viewers, and it will no doubt enrage them when it is passed over (watch out, Twitter!). Ultimately, if one film is going to make Hollywood stand up and listen to its audiences, this is the one, but they’re too afraid to honor a movie with ties to the right wing by default.
It takes no more than a matter of seconds of watching “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” to draw the conclusion that Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu wrote his dizzying opus solely for veteran “Batman” actor Michael Keaton.
But wishing someone like Keaton would star in his film, Iñárritu said, and having him actually committing to it, are two different things — especially for a man whose career path mirrors the film’s narrative so closely in real life.
“I think Michael was always in my mind, that Michael was always the best for the part, and I don’t think it would be nearly what it is without him,” Iñárritu told me in a recent interview. “I never try to write a script for anybody specifically because it could be very traumatic for me if for some reason the person would not do it. But once I finished the script, I knew that he would be the best choice.”
Expanding into more theaters Friday, “Birdman” stars Keaton as Riggan Thompson, struggling former film star whose life is in the dumps after starring in three blockbuster “Birdman” movies more than two decades before. His apparent salvation lies in a Broadway play, an all-or-nothing comeback piece in which he stars, directs and produces.
Before he launches into the critical preview period, however, Riggan has to confront a nasty nest full of problems, including the personal issues of a grown-up daughter (Emma Stone) he never really knew; a cast of helplessly neurotic actors including an arrogant Broadway star (Ed Norton) who does his best to sabotage the play at every turn; and a vicious theater critic whose all-powerful reviews can either give life to or quickly kill every production that dares to tread the boards on the Great White Way.
Hovering above the potential disaster-in-the-making, though, is Riggan’s Birdman alter-ego, which has become such a part of his life that he appears to take on the character’s mystical powers at times, and is often haunted by the superhero’s gravelly voice. Fending off interviewers who really only care if there will be a fourth “Birdman” film, Riggan knows he will only truly be set free if he can stage a performance to kill off his blue feathered character once and for all.
Iñárritu, whose previous films include the Oscar-nominated “Babel” and the heartbreaking drama “21 Grams,” says the idea, while mirroring the travails of a former superhero star, actually comes from the voices he hears while struggling with his ego.
“There’s a voice that we all have that judges us and punishes us,” Iñárritu said. “The voice that I hear especially during the creative process, that is full of doubts and is never satisfied. Perfection can always drive you crazy. I can be very cruel with myself sometimes. The ego works in a very tyrannical, data ship mode.”
Iñárritu said once he became aware of that “inner voice” concept, he thought it would be a great theme for somebody in a movie. But translating those complex thoughts isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do, as he found out.
“It took me a long time to come up with that abstract of having a presence like that which is so intense,” Iñárritu said. “It’s in all of us, but at the same time it’s very silent. Still it manipulates all of us. It’s important that it awakens you and you see it clearly, because if not, you are f—-d.”
During the long creative process of “Birdman,” Iñárritu said he had lunch in Mexico one day with Tim Burton, who prior to 1989’s “Batman” and 1992’s “Batman Returns” worked with Keaton on the classic supernatural comedy “Beetlejuice” in 1988. Iñárritu said Burton’s insights into Keaton were invaluable.
“He told me that Michael, beside his funny side, has a very, very dark side to him, and it’s true,” Iñárritu said. “He said that Michael is a very complex person, a beautiful human being and a very self-assured guy who can really navigate through drama and comedy. That’s why I wanted him, beyond the fact that he was Batman and the reality he could bring to the film. There are few actors that can bring the complex nature that this character needed. The fact that he can navigate through both genres is unique.”
While Keaton is naturally the focus of “Birdman,” the fragile states of Riggan’s fellow actors – Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrew Riseborough — are also examined in the film. And having worked with many different performers over the years, Iñárritu says actors can be very vulnerable due to the nature of the profession, if not a bit bat-s–t crazy at times, as demonstrated in “Birdman.”
“The nature of acting is very complex, because in order to be good, they can’t be themselves. It’s a very strange job to pretend to be others,” the filmmaker said. “It’s very difficult and puts them in a very vulnerable position, and they so much on others, the material and the applause. It’s a lone wolf way of living, yet at the same time fantastic. It’s a journey through their own kind of consciousness and knowledge. They have to be very perceptive, very sensitive and they have to look very deeply into life and reabsorb it. It’s complex and a little cuckoo, I guess.”
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers