The big story surrounding The Revenant is how hard it was to shoot. The film is based on the true story of frontier legend Hugh Glass, who not only survived a deadly bear attack, but made his way through the cold wilderness just to get revenge on the men who wronged him. Conveying the immediacy of the danger was crucial for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and so, instead of using computer technology to render the movie’s icy landscapes, he and his team ventured into the Canadian mountains in what ended up being an unexpectedly long shoot. So long, in fact, that they started to run out of ice, and had to move the production all the way down to Argentina.
Much has been written about how exhausting the filming process was, and how star Leonardo DiCaprio struggled to act through the unbearably cold weather. Articles have been written about how Iñárritu and DiCaprio “survived” the filming of the film (my guess is they were just filming a movie, and thus, were probably not in actual danger). All of this talk begs the question: was this overwhelming struggle for authenticity worth it? In some ways, it was. Cold weather is one of hardest things to convey in film, and The Revenant does a pretty great job of constantly reminding us how cold the characters are. In others, it wasn’t. Because this is an Iñárritu film through-and-through, which means the director’s usual strengths, and overwhelming weaknesses are sharply in focus. Iñárritu is a talented man who knows his way around a camera. He knows how to create visceral, memorable images, but he is also fairly hollow and superficial in his thematic obsessions. The Revenant fits perfectly within the rest of his filmography.
What makes Iñárritu such a frustrating filmmaker is the fact that he is so talented. The action sequence that opens The Revenant, for example, is quite fantastic. Credit has to go to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a true virtuoso of the camera if there ever was one), who uses his now trademark long takes to convey the inescapable outburst of chaos that disentangles when Native American warriors attack a fur-trapper camp. The sequence is gruesome and relentless. It sets up the tone for the film quite effectively, but it also foretells the film’s excess. This is, after all, the story of a man going through hell and back, and Iñárritu really hammers on the “hell” part. Take, for instance, the now infamous bear attack, which is so violent, and goes on for so long, that it’s hard to take it seriously. I couldn’t help but laugh.
There is another very telling moment during that bear attack. At one point, the bear’s face comes really close to the camera, and his breath fogs up the lens. I don’t know if this was an accident caused by the use of an actual animal, or if the breath was added to a computer generated bear in post-production; nevertheless, there were one or two moments like this throughout the film, and they clashed very loudly with the ultra-realistic aesthetic of the rest of the movie. There was a Q&A with Iñárritu after my screening, and I was really glad when friend Abie (who was my plus-one that night) asked him about these weird moments of self-reflexivity that had stayed in my mind throughout the whole movie. The director’s response confirmed what I had suspected. It was a coincidence, an accidental moment of beauty he had decided to keep.
Happy accidents exist, and they can make a movie better. Iñárritu’s accident looked pretty, that’s for sure, but did it make the film better? This is not to say that every aspect of a film has to be micromanaged to an inch of its life, but this is the kind of thought that overwhelms me when watching Iñárritu’s films. They are, in many ways, so well done, that I refuse to accept the fact that they could be as superficial as they are. I search for little bits and moments that will grant me a bigger understanding of what the director was going for, but at the end of the day, it is all in vain. The Revenant is a story about a man who comes back for the dead for revenge, and that’s that. There is nothing else beneath the thick furs and the piles of snow.
This isn’t necessarily bad. There are tons of superficial movies from which I derive enormous pleasure. For example, I wouldn’t describe Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive as particularly deep, but it is so well executed that I love it nonetheless. Also very important in Drive‘s case, is the fact that the movie is very transparent about the story it is telling. The Revenant is anything but. The movie’s whole second act is piled with hallucinations, fever-dreams, and other kind of esoteric moments that hint at a bigger theme that runs through the movie. There is an inexplicable shot of a comet flying by for God’s sake. What does that comment mean? Probably nothing. It’s probably a visual shorthand to invoke a more complex understanding of the world and humanity that Iñárritu has no interest in exploring. Strip away all of this bullshit, and The Revenant becomes a pretty solid action movie.
But that’s the movie I wish we had, not the one we got. The movie we got is more than two hours long, and is mostly about Leonardo DiCaprio suffering his way from one snowy landscape to another. The Revenant is the culmination of Iñárritu’s unstoppable obsession with suffering. To him, there are no triumphs, only pain and suffering. Humanity is rotten, and nature deadly. But if there is nothing else, then what’s the point of anything? Life is empty, and so is his movie.
Grade: 5 out of 10