Why 'The Revenant' is Leonardo DiCaprio's Ticket to Oscar Glory

Mauled by a bear and left for dead, DiCaprio faces his stiffest acting challenge yet, and the Academy won't be able to turn away.

20th Century Fox

The matter is when, not if, regarding Leonardo DiCaprio and the Best Actor Academy Award. The man many judge to be the best of his generation hasn't won it yet, but 2015 is his year. On Christmas Day, December 25, The Revenant will be released in theaters and the Oscar buzz will reach a fever pitch. I suppose it's no longer a matter of when.

DiCaprio turns 41-years-old in November. He's far from old, but he's seemingly been around forever. He gained national attention at 19 for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which earned him his first Oscar nomination—for Best Supporting Actor. And he's done plenty since. DiCaprio's been nominated four other times, three Best Actor nods (The Aviator, Blood Diamond, The Wolf of Wall Street), and even one for Best Picture (He produced Wolf also). 

It's clear The Academy has enormous respect for DiCaprio's work and he may simply be a victim of bad luck. He's faced stiff competition in the years he's been nominated. That places him in enviable territory: The Academy owes this guy. The voting body has a long history of "makeup awards." Leo's directorial mentor Martin Scorsese, for example, won for The Departed in 2006 after years of losing for his best work (Raging Bull, Goodfellas). DiCaprio might win Best Actor for The Revenant based on this theory alone, but the movie will be so good, he'll deserve it anyway.

Why is The Revenant DiCaprio's ticket to Oscar gold? Here are four big reasons this should be Leo's year.

Why 'The Revenant' is Leonardo DiCaprio's Ticket to Oscar Glory

1. The Unbelievable True Story - As cliche as that sounds, it's actually accurate this time. DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass in The Revenant, an early 19th century American fur-trapper and wilderness man who was mauled by a bear and left for dead during an expedition in South Dakota. Glass was shredded, and the novel of the same name by Michael Punke details the outdoorsman's injuries in gory detail:

"The bear brought down her paw and Glass felt the sickening sensation of the anmals' six-inch claws dredging deep into the flesh of his upper arm, shoulder, and throat... She bit into the back of his neck and lifted him off the ground... He felt the crunch of her teeth striking the bone of his shoulder blade. Claws raked repeatedly through the flesh of his back and scalp... She dropped him, then sank her teeth deep into his thigh and shook him again..." (Punke p. 24)

DiCaprio will endure this scene and spend the rest of the film healing while outdoors and alone. Not all of the story is true, but many of the characters and events are, and that's all The Academy usually needs to hear. The voters love true stories. Glass travels with The Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the story, a convoy of soldiers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson in the film). After the bear attack, Henry tasks two soldiers with watching over Glass as he recovers. But the two men (played by Tom Hardy and Will Poulter) decide the mission is too dangerous and they abandon him for fear of local tribes, not to mention bears, boars, and other wild animals. They also cowardly take Glass' rifle and knife. Bleeding slowly with cuts running the length of his back, Glass recovers enough to crawl to some safety. And he doesn't stop — the tantalizing thought of revenge urges him on.

2. The Character - Hugh Glass is a true leading man role. He's on every page of Punke's novel and you can expect DiCaprio to carry the film nearly single-handedly. After he's deserted, Glass comes across an assortment of wild characters with different agendas, but he's the centerpiece of the story. And even if he wasn't, Glass would still be a fascinating guy. Portrayed once before on film, by Richard Harris in Man of the Wilderness (1971, Glass is renamed Zachary Bass), the fur-trapper endures a hellish trial that's damn near unimaginable. Surviving a bear attack might could happen, but withstanding the bloody aftermath with no medical assistance in 1821? The guy is a miracle. He's also nearly silent throughout the book. His inner narrative drives the film, so it'll be interesting to see how DiCaprio expresses himself. 

The Oscar hopeful recently spoke to Grantland about the character. “I tried to capture — or emulate on film — a different type of American that I haven’t seen on film very often,” DiCaprio says. “This [was] an unregulated, sort of lawless territory. It hadn’t been forged into the America that we know yet. It was still sort of up for grabs.

“The preparation was really more being completely in tune with my surroundings,” the actor continues, “and doing my best to pretend that no one was around, because it is so much about this man’s isolation and his will to live — somebody that’s lost everything. And all that… needed to be translated with very [few] actors around me.

Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of The Revenant. (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)
Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of The Revenant. (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

3.  Alejandro González Iñárritu - The director and co-writer of The Revenant is coming off a Best Director/Best Picture win for Birdman last year. But, even without the accolades, Iñárritu was always a huge talent (Amores Perros, Babel). Now the world knows it, and the director seems primed to capitalize on his success. He took his Revenant cast and crew to remote parts of the Canadian Rockies to film his wilderness thriller. The Revenant was shot using only natural light, and the camera comes alive, thanks to Iñárritu's world-class cinematographer (and back to back Oscar winner) Emmanuel Lubezki. It's obvious from the trailer alone, this isn't your garden variety action film. Iñárritu seems to be doubling down on the inventiveness of Birdman while allowing Lubezki room to maneuver, similar to what we saw in Gravity and The Tree of Life

Here's what DiCaprio told Grantland about working with Iñárritu:

“[I’m] very much director-driven. I really believe that filmmaking is a director’s medium. And although the screenplay, the character, is important as well, the execution of that screenplay can only be done in the hands of the right director — especially something like Revenant.”

“I had read the script — I think it had been floating around for quite a while. But it was really his passion for the material and wanting to tell this story. You know, it’s not your traditional revenge film, [what] with him finding the keys to survival … and also really a deeper understanding of why he wants to be alive. That intrigued me.”

Likewise, Iñárritu had nothing but praise for his star: “He (DiCaprio) was always the first choice for me, and I think I was completely right... I knew that he has this very tender, noble, fragile, fractured quality. I didn’t want to make the film of a — boom! — powerful man. The complexity of that, I thought, would be great to explore with Leo. He hits so many notes,” The director continues, “He’s not just an incredible actor, maybe the best I’ve ever worked with, but as a filmmaker — the way he understands camera, I think he is one of the smartest people I have worked with. And the way he conveyed what’s going on inside — by his eyes, his physicality, the body language — I think he did an amazing job.”

Best Actor Oscar amazing? No doubt.

Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.