Leonardo DiCaprio with his last two performance, Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street, has been letting loose a bit, changing up from the style of his work which started in the previous decade, where his performances was often defined by extreme emotions. Though I suppose I have been more forgiving than some in regards to these roles, I do see where the criticism comes from as DiCaprio would often focus too intently on a single aspect of his character such as in J. Edgar where he focused on the character's emotional vulnerability, though there were times he'd find the needed variation such as in The Departed. Now The Revenant might seem like DiCaprio is going back to his old ways in the role of Hugh Glass in this film. After all Glass's wife is indeed dead just as was the case for DiCaprio's characters in Shutter Island and Inception, and there is another tragedy ready to befall him about a third of a way into this film. So it would seem time for DiCaprio to focus intensely on just the anguish of the man's life. Well, that's not quite the case, and that's not really the intent of this performance. This turn actually has much in common with his career best turn in The Wolf of Wall Street, though I must admit I have quite a bit of explaining to do on that point.
But before I get to all that let's just examine Hugh Glass as a character. He had an indigenous wife, with whom he had a son, and then she was killed which resulted in Glass killing man. After that he became a tracker for an ill fated hunting expedition along with his son. DiCaprio is good in providing an appropriate bond with his son in the few scenes we are given between them. In the first scene of the film DiCaprio offers the right warmth of a father giving words of comfort to his younger son. With his older son though DiCaprio changes this rather well by giving a colder edge to his relationship showing Glass as trying to keep his son in line, and out of danger. It is not as though the love has not vanished, but rather DiCaprio importantly suggests the sort of relationship that would develop given that Glass must protect his son, but also prepare him to survive. Now with that all out of the way, other than a pivotal event, that's about the sum of what we are given in terms of Glass's backstory. It is a minimalist character since even that history we are shown through images rather than through dialogue. Speaking of dialogue, Glass has very few lines throughout the film with the character being almost unable to speak for a good chunk of the story.
What is probably the most obviously impressive element of DiCaprio's performance comes in as Glass, scouting ahead for the party, accidentally comes afoul of a bear and is severely mauled. It needs to be said that DiCaprio is terrific in the scene as every moment of the attack feels real through his performance with every scream of agony being keenly felt throughout the ordeal. This goes for every instance in DiCaprio's work in terms of the depiction of the physical pain that Glass goes through. DiCaprio makes your skin crawl as every cut, every festering wound, even every measure to reduce the pain is realized in vivid detail by him. DiCaprio does not limit any facet of this portraying even Glass's haggard breaths from the damage to his lungs, and throat as well, through his course whimper that barely escape his mouth just after the bear attack. DiCaprio portrays this incredibly well as he only gradually even gives Glass his voice back, as even at the end of the film since his throat is still far from full recovery. DiCaprio is uncompromising in the realization of Glass's terrible state which is essential to the film, as in DiCaprio's performance one can see what Glass must endure in his attempt to survive his long journey. The weight of this is on DiCaprio's shoulders and he does not falter in this regard in the slightest.
Of course if Glass was not suffering enough, due to the frequent attacks by a hostile group of natives, and almost being eaten by a bear, he also has to deal with a selfish jerk by the name of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who is one of the three men left behind to watch over Glass. Fitzgerald naturally wants to smother Glass, and I love this moment in DiCaprio's performance as his face is almost saying "are you kidding me?" as Fitzgerald makes it basically impossible to say no to his proposition. This unfortunately leads Glass's son to try to interfere with Fitzgerald's plan, which results in another tragedy for Glass. DiCaprio's reaction again terrific in properly expressing the disbelief and intense anger at seeing Fitzgerald's terrible action. DiCaprio portrays it well as though Glass is trying his best to make himself overcome his injuries but is forced into just witness the event in horror. Fitzgerald, to add to that all the more, leaves Glass for dead, though it does give Glass purpose to survive. Glass starts on his trek, which begins with him literally crawling for life, as he falls upon the corpse of his son. It's one of DiCaprio's strongest moments because he does not use the moment to once again reveal his hate for Fitzgerald, but rather takes the scene to somberly show his love to his son one last time.
Now comparing this to Wolf of Wall Street seems odd, but actually with that performance and this one he embraces his actual movie star presence, which he seemed almost to be actively avoiding at times with some of his earlier performances. Now this is not in terms of a larger than life personality that he presented in that earlier film, but rather finding the ability to standout within the frame. After all the film has a considerable scope and clear directorial vision, but DiCaprio succeeds in standing with it rather than being overwhelmed by it. He remains the human focus in the right fashion, though perhaps not in the way one might expect. DiCaprio does not keep Glass's journey focused solely on the idea of revenge, and does not give a performance as though Glass is obsessed with this. In fact this part of DiCaprio's performance is surprisingly, though effectively, rather subtle in his realization of Glass's intentions. He portrays less of a vicious anger, but more of a respective duty to his son, rather than an act of potential personal satisfaction. This is echoed well by one of the few scenes where Glass actually explains his personal feelings, when he states his earlier act of violence. Again DiCaprio does suggest this as Glass's actions being defined by hatred, but rather as an honest act to protect his son.
DiCaprio does not give a single focus to his portrayal of Glass during his attempt to survive the wilderness and find Fitzgerald. He captures the needed visceral qualities within the story whether it is physical torment from his trials, or the direct fear when he is trying to escape the group of natives that were trailing his party. DiCaprio keeps alive the emotional touches of the past, that again DiCaprio is rather affecting by showing Glass being burdened not by hatred but rather sadness as he remembers his loss. DiCaprio does not leave every scene though to either portray Glass's current physical state or the motivation for his survival. There some great "slight" moments in his performance that bring more nuance to Glass. One of my favorites in this regard is when Glass mimes shooting at an elk with a stick. There's wonderful appreciation for better times as he takes the moment to understand his hardship. One my favorite sequences in the film is when Glass comes across another survivor Hikuc(Arthur RedCloud) who has also lost his family. DiCaprio and RedCloud strike up endearing chemistry in their few scenes together, they're especially good in the moment where the two catch snowflakes as though both of them are taking a moment to enjoy life once again, if only for a brief moment. DiCaprio finds the needed variation within Glass's story, which is particularly important considering the potentially limited nature of his character. He does not dwell upon simply the revenge, he does not focus upon that until Glass is staring Fitzgerald right in the face. In that moment DiCaprio brings the necessary intensity as he releases his rage against Fitzgerald. After their showdown though DiCaprio does not create this as a portrait as a man's triumph over nature, or even over his enemy. DiCaprio instead reveals the end of the pursuit to be a hollow. He is haunting in his final reaction of the film as Glass looks to see what is left in his life, but nothing's there. Just as one should not give up after a bear mauling, one should never cave into peer pressure. DiCaprio gives a great performance as he works in tandem with the film to give a compelling portrait of survival.