What's been missing for years in Hollywood's adventure films? Verisimilitude.
Contrast the rugged New Zealand beauty of The Fellowship of the Ring with the
What's marvelous about The Revenant is the improbable amount of control Iñárritu and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki seem to wield, even out in the wild. (Few scenes take place indoors.) To tell this simplest of revenge stories, set in the American Rockies in the 1820s, the production shot for months in inhospitable stretches of Canada and Argentina, relying on natural light and the cruel whims of the weather. Yet the camera glides and snakes through this wintry hell with all the dazzling fluidity Iñárritu displayed in Birdman. But here the dexterous long shots don't play like they are themselves the point. Iñárritu employs them when a moment benefits from being extended, often when to cut would be to offer us relief.
Early on, Pawnee ambush Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass and his band of trappers; an intimate and ugly battle threads through the poplars, rich with brutal incident. In one wheeling and impossible shot, Iñárritu follows a trapper or a Pawnee, then another coming from another direction, and then another still. It's a nerve-racking breakthrough for depictions of battlefield chaos, and watching it is something like trying to drive for the first time through a Boston roundabout: Death can come from any direction.
Not long after, the routed trappers bicker at a makeshift mountain campsite with raw sky and stone behind and below them. They're furious, terrified, spitting lines at each other we don't quite catch, and the shot's length — its multiple set-ups and multiple dramas — seems to press in on them: This moment has carried on far too long. They need to run. We need them to run.
Not long after that comes the bear scene you might have heard about. It's another scene of bravura technique whose technique comes to be invisible — it's just an endless horror, the Bear Mauling Simulation App you never thought you could download, stretching on with a grim patience. Iñárritu is operating here not at the pace of movie set pieces but at the pace of a bear. DiCaprio's character doesn't get raped, as that trolling nonsense site the Drudge Report claimed, but the exhaustive, panting up-closeness of the scene is legitimately horrifying. It's not a sequence you watch; it's an encounter you get through.
That's the first of several instances in which Iñárritu seems to dare audiences to vacate the theater. There's an actual rape, later, visited upon the only woman Glass meets; there are many long, slogging minutes of near-death Glass crawling through snow or wheezing with ice in his beard; there's the Malickian zone-out shots of the moon and sun burning through clouds; there's the grunting lead performance from DiCaprio, who barely speaks as he grinds through the wilderness; there's Iñárritu's best-in-class take on the survive-the-night-in-a-carcass routine, with a steaming abundance of horse innards — it's Matthew Barney meets The Empire Strikes Back.
The Revenant was famously hard to shoot, but the filmmaking has a rare and confident vigor — you are always aware you're seeing the real world, even as Iñárritu's camera bounds through it like it's Skyrim. Birdman was impressive, but the technique always seemed to me to limit its actors, who had to deliver their monologues while constantly accommodating that camera's stunt work — and, denied the benefits of conventional editing, were stuck trying to power through the film's every mood-shift and transition on their own, in something like real time. Not so, here.
The sad thing, then, is that the story honored with such mastery is familiar journey/revenge stuff. Tom Hardy, bracing in a heel turn, plays the sumbitch who left DiCaprio's Glass to die. Glass has to heal and then hunt him down. As usual, DiCaprio's character has a
If you can work up interest in such meager material, the film is a chilling, stirring, experiential immersion in what life-and-death drama might actually feel like. DiCaprio's final showdown with Hardy, crashing through snowdrifts to an iced-over creek, is one of the great screen fights. You've sat through variations on every scene in The Revenant before, but you've probably never believed them. Iñárritu puts you there.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, and Duane Howard. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith. Based "in part" on a novel by Michael Punke. 156 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday, January 8, at the Classic Gateway Theatre (1820 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-763-7994; thegatewaytheatre.com).