Saturday, February 6, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' (Tom Hardy in
background left). Is this really deserving best actor?
“The Revenant” is a gripping wilderness revenge drama pretending to be about something more than revenge. It has a special look and verisimilitude of agony that warrants some attention from the Oscars, where it leads (mostly in technical categories) with 10 nominations.

But let’s avoid if we can one of the big awards -- the travesty of rewarding Leonardo DiCaprio as best actor. He is a versatile movie performer whose output and personality deserve accolades and who handles this role of Glass quite grimly and convincingly. But I’d plead with his believers to wait for another outing.

He is the Las Vegas odds-on favorite for best actor in a season where others have done better work. His competition for Oscar doesn’t really reflect this strong year. It  includes Matt Damon for “The Martian,” which I cannot yet judge, Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs,” which I honor as precisely modulated in a modulated reading of the Apple guru written by Aaron Sorkin; Eddie Redmayne, a true champion of physical and vocal acting unlikely to win two years in a row for the transgender nuances of “The Danish Girl,” and Bryan Cranston who is wonderfully human and immediate in a film likely to be overlooked (I’ll review this “Trumbo” at the end of this piece).

It’s painful for me to oppose DiCaprio especially since I sense Hollywood feet stampeding toward rewarding him after passing him over in countless other roles where he could have been considered. And here is a film trailing excellent credentials and box office response – what the blurbs love to refer to as “gut-wrenching” “rip-roaring” “blood and bones” frontier western. So why not use it to honor someone who actually is a practiced accomplished film actor not to mention a major heartthrob at the box office?

Because I totally disagree with the Washington Post, which called the prospect of his losing an “unthinkable fraud.” It would be quite thinkable fraud like “Butterfield 8” (1960) in which Elizabeth Taylor was rewarded with an Oscar because the academy had failed to do its job with her in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” two years earlier and  because a reaction to scandal had turned to sympathy when she became ill. So the voters went for a lousy outing in a lousy film to make amends.

In this case, “Revenant” (the title quite accurately means someone returned as if from the dead) is not lousy but it is just not my idea of all the aspects of great acting that should go into the industry’s top honor.

The physical agony that DiCaprio (and the entire company) went through in Canadian wilderness filming was brutal and riveting. It uses every facet of screen magic surrounded with barren expanses of running river water, ice, savages gnawing on raw meat, entrails and untamed animals spilling everywhere. It is a visual feast apparently shot with all natural light by amazing cinematographer Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki, who seems to have played with incredibly wide lenses and advance edge camera.  

The movie will get attention for the extensive bear mauling that DiCaprio as Glass endures (watch out, the bear comes back!), his burning his throat with gunpowder to heal a wound, his climbing inside a dead horse (shades of “Rob Roy”) and other believably done re-creations of early 19th century primitive survival – and this is aside from the stark portrayal of Indians and trappers.

The makeup for DiCaprio’s face, hands and decaying body is remarkable and he occupies it in full glory, also whispering and croaking his love for his son affectively and wearing grimaces, spitting drool and hatred for the paid companion who abandons him. It’s effective ferocity. But it is normal ferocity for film actors that begins to fade with repetition toward the end.

In fact, combining dialog, poetic nastiness and sly bile as the hard-bitten scoundrel of the piece, Tom Hardy is closer to deserving the Oscar supporting actor nomination he received, though I still lean toward Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies,” if you want to see what a great actor can do with the flick of the eyes and the subtle sarcasm of tone.

“Revenant” particularly benefits from the cinematic intensity of director Alejandro Iñárritu, last year’s winner for “Birdman,” here showing a complete command of more traditional genres.  “Birdman” had a totally urban feel and emulated the idea of unfolding in a single cinematic shot while dazzling us with virtuoso.  “Revenant” is different but still virtuoso, with the camera hugging the water and then peering up at the skies as arrows fly in and bodies fall in some of the most stylistic tracking shots since Michelangelo Antonioni, followed by rapidly cut sequences. There is relentless attention to retaining a storytelling style of deep detail. There is a constant stereo soundtrack in which voices whisper in the ear as if from the minds as well as the voices of the characters and the ghosts they conjure up. 

The music punctuates. The mists off the mountains gather and fly at us. The landscape seems untouched by human hands, totally primitive with sudden symbolic bursts that, quite frankly, in lesser hands would seem corny since they lack emotional weight beyond the sense of constant corpses being piled on. The screenplay has wonderful scenes and maudlin moments where Iñárritu seems tugging too hard to find a deeper meaning in tragedy and trauma, as if the pull of revenge can somehow be contradicted by poetic comments on the limitation of the vengeance, though it is this sense of vengeance that drives the film.

The director’s techniques and his ability to evoke total commitment from his actors and crew are praiseworthy, but he is sort of like a visionary shaman trying to suck the Hollywood out of Howard Hawks’ 1952 “The Big Sky,” also about trappers fighting natural elements though in those days it was on a soundstage and certainly lacked such brutal realistic exactitude. 

DiCaprio certainly should be applauded for both surviving this shoot, maybe even relishing it according to stories  and accomplishing it so well, but I am not comfortable with so much camouflage of makeup, blood squibs and costumes and so many broken sequences of bodies crawling and suffering to stand in for exceptional acting.

I found myself thinking more and more of what sort of screen acting I think deserves such attention – and quite frankly, given what DiCaprio has said in the past about naturalness, he might agree if Oscar honors weren’t involved.  I think particularly of how Bryan Cranston makes writing screenplays in a bathtub so endearing as “Trumbo” and also finds that moment of disappointment and forgiveness at the sudden flight to the dark side of friend and threatened star Edward G. Robinson (performed well and without impersonation by Michael Stuhlbarg).

Bryan Cranston in 'Trumbo.'
I have been reluctant to write about “Trumbo” though I saw it in late November.  because Dalton Trumbo is one of my heroes in fighting the blacklist of the late 1940s and early 1950s, not only winning Oscars under pseudonyms when the industry joined the barring of writers deemed by McCarthyism to have Communist leanings (many of whom wrote the most American films of World War II and some of the best screenplays of the ‘30s and ‘40s).

So I was fearful that my well-known affection for how Trumbo stood up in that horrifying era would get in the way of watching the film as a critic, and I was particularly aware of where the film bent the truth for dramatic impact.  I think if anything such knowledge made me dismiss it, as I fear many in Hollywood will since the movie does feel a bit like Hollywood admiring its later morality. Over time it is sticking in my memory, not just for Trumbo and the lessons he represents but because of Cranston.

It was Trumbo who penned forgettable B movies under false names, even creating an army of such blacklisted writers (an episode that movie has a little too much fun with) and then finally helped blow the lid off the blacklist when he was named as the screenwriter for films like “Exodus” and “Spartacus” while the blacklist was still technically in effect.

Cranston softens the abrasive edges of Trumbo’s  personality without denying them – he does better than the screenplay here --  and emphasizes what many in the movie industry still fondly  remember about him: His energy even fever to write and write and write,  his curious courtesy toward enemies, his willingness to park his ego on the shelf if he could make money, his  combination of abrasive wit  (he memorably called those who testified for HUAC “the time of the toad”) and yet willingness to forgive and work with those who failed to meet his principles. 

So it was hard to be objective about the film. I confess to having a fondness for the archival footage and the parade of actors doing a nifty job imitating big names (David James Elliott as a surprisingly nuanced John Wayne, Dean O’Gorman as a remarkable lookalike Kirk Douglas and most deliciously, Helen Mirren as a nasty Hedda Hopper).  There is also the family Trumbo including nice turns by Diane Lane and Elle Fanning as wife and daughter. 

Director Jay Roach does not have an Iñárritu reputation. He is better known for films like “Meet the Fockers” and “Austin Powers,” but he understands the period, the style and what his actors can do with John McNamara’s “then Trumbo did this” script.  But it is Cranston who holds it all together with a performance of significant natural power and he wears makeup as comfortably as DiCaprio and spreads a human warmth out from under the mustache and constant cigaret.  

In many ways, his performance is more worthy of honor for rising above circumstances, though I suspect it is not his turn or time even after both theater and television have recognized him. I’m just sad Grand Guignol is what DiCaprio will be honored for.

ALSO ABOUT OSCAR: A discussion of the strange Oscar year pulling out for inspection “Spotlight,” “The Danish Girl” and “Carol.” Make “Room” for a thrilling film.

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal,  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.