The Problem with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Performance in The Revenant

By  · Published on December 7th, 2015

DiCaprio in The Revenant

If you’re looking for a trend or unifying theme within the filmography of Alejandro González Iñárritu, here’s one that almost never fails: he’s wonderful at setting up his leading man for success. This is something we’ve been seeing from him since 2003’s 21 Grams and holds doubly true for his work on The Revenant (due out later this month). His ability to craft an environment in which a talented, major acting presence can just go out and act the hell out of a role is something that has drawn the likes of Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro (21 Grams), Javier Bardem (Biutiful), Brad Pitt (Babel), Michael Keaton and Edward Norton (Birdman) and now both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy into the frame of his directorial gaze.

It’s as if Iñárritu is a kind of Best Actor whisperer. Each of those names listed above were at least in the conversation in their respective years, with Del Toro, Bardem and the pair from Birdman all securing nominations. The lack of wins is less relevant. Every year brings its own set of variables that swing The Academy one way or the other. What matters is that working with Iñárritu can put an actor in the conversation. This is true of not just the men in his movies, but the women, as well. Just ask Emma Stone, Rinko Kikuchi, Adriana Barraza and Naomi Watts.

So it’s no surprise that one of Hollywood’s most successful, Oscar-less actors turned in a full-throttle performance in Iñárritu’s latest. It’s true that Leonardo DiCaprio has been nominated for either Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor four times and every time he’s found himself clapping as someone else accepts a little gold statue. Is that something that keeps him up at night? Probably not. He seems like the kind of guy who has other things to do in the evening hours. But it’s clear in his performances that the chase is on. And that could be his biggest problem.

The result of The Revenant pairing – this triumvirate of Iñárritu, DiCaprio and Tom Hardy – is a beautiful, brutal experience. Among its blistery 156 minutes of runtime, much of it is populated by Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capturing the grandiose wonder and harsh reality of the American frontier. Even when it’s taking itself far too seriously, the film is absolutely gorgeous. And the stuff within its story that is making headlines for being “brutal” is perhaps more gnarly than you’re imagining. I missed the rumored “bear rape” scene, but what I saw was far more indelible and horrifying.

But even amongst all that beauty and violence – two things that are in heavy supply when the film opens with a long, seamless sequence that could rival even Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach sequence – there was this nagging problem that I couldn’t shake with regard to DiCaprio’s performance. He always looks like he’s trying so hard to act the stuffing out of every single scene. There’s little that feels natural or lived-in about his performance, even though I know that he really did some of the gruesome things that ended up on screen. It’s no wonder that he’s been calling this one of the most difficult roles of his career. I’m sure that it was. You can see the hardship on screen. But at times, in those most dramatic moments of dialogue or quiet reflection, the self-seriousness of his effort is almost comical.

Contrast that with the performance of Tom Hardy, who plays a fellow 19th century frontiersman whose moral compass is a bit more askew and who ends up in an adversarial battle of wits with DiCaprio. Hardy disappears into the role of a racist, ghoulishly pragmatic man with a Southern twang and general distrust of anyone who isn’t paying him. It’s a one-note character (he’s simply not a nice guy), but it’s a character delivered with relative ease on the part of Hardy. If you didn’t know any better – or perhaps didn’t recognize him under fur and beard – you’d hesitate to notice that it was Hardy delivering yet another great performance. Within a few moments of screen time, it’s as if he’s lived in this world his entire life.

When it comes to DiCaprio, the first thought is more along the lines of, “Hey look, it’s Leo! He’s really acting hard.”

This isn’t to say that DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant is bad. It’s not. Nor would I suggest that The Revenant isn’t a good movie. It’s beautifully shot, incredibly violent and even though it takes itself way too seriously, it delivers on its ultimate promise: a grizzly, heavyweight macho-off between DiCaprio and Hardy. But it also feels like that kind of movie that will yield some acting nominations and see the less desperate man win. Or as my roommate rightly pointed out before I left for my screening, “Hey, are you ready for that movie that’s going to win Tom Hardy an Oscar while DiCaprio gets shut out again?”

I was ready. And the result, unfortunately for DiCaprio, was as expected.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)