Last year (technically 2014) director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) masterfully directed the Best Picture-winning Birdman. Starring Michael Keaton, the film followed a once great actor (Keaton) struggling to become relevant again by writing, directing, and starring in a production of his own stage play. Aside from winning four Academy Awards for the film (Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography); what stood out the most about the film to me was that the entire film seemed to be encompassed by one long continuous shot. How does Iñárritu follow up a smart and elegantly shot film like Birdman? By going out into the harsh wilderness of Canada and Argentina to shoot The Revenant and in all natural light.
The Revenant focuses on frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who while on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s is left for dead after being brutally mauled by a bear; and embarks on a quest for survival and revenge against those responsible. Battling immensely harsh environmental conditions, Glass also has to contend with Native Americans and his diminishing health in order to stay alive.
If there is one thing I have to say about Iñárritu, it’s that he really knows how to envision a story. At its core, The Revenant is a story about survival. It’s Iñárritu’s keen vision and the actors that he chose to work with (namely Leo), that gives the film this grandeur that really makes it something to behold and see in a movie theater.
Because as I’ve alluded to already, I’ll start with the cinematography; it’s a real standout aspect of the film. Working with his longtime partner/cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu beautifully captures the Canadian and Argentinian landscape in The Revenant. From snow covered forests to foggy woods, to night shots lit by firelight, nearly every scene that does not include a human is exquisitely shot. But, it isn’t all about scenic vistas, the scenes with humans are masterfully crafted as well.
As if he was winding down from Birdman, Iñárritu employs many long takes in the film which amp up sequences in the film. The action does not stop for a moment as the camera follows characters and much of the action that takes place, all in real time. In a sense, it keeps the audience locked into a scene because It doesn’t really give the viewer a moment to catch their breath.
In one spectacularly shot scene that one-ups the opening sequence of Avengers: Age of Ultron, in one take, the camera follows several individuals during an Indian attack on Glass’s encampment. Right after someone gets hit with an arrow, the camera deftly follows another member of the party as he scrambles to get his bearings. Next the person that the camera is following shoots at an attacker and then the camera shifts and follows the incoming attacker as he shoots an arrow at the previous person we were following. Still with me? The audience is led through this elaborately choreographed battle sequence in one or two quite long camera takes! And then there’s the bear sequence. I haven’t even gotten to that yet (just wait).
I think it’s safe to say that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the best working actors today that hasn’t gotten an Oscar. Just perusing his filmography on IMDB as I type this and he’s played a lot of different characters for a lot of different directors. And he does it all with this intensity that metamorphosizes him into the characters he portrays. He just flat out does good work and we shouldn’t expect anything less from him at this point.
With The Revenant, Leo really gets to do a lot with a role that is physically demanding by enduring harsh conditions AND forces him to act and emote with not a lot of dialogue. In many of his scenes, Leo conveys much of his emotions and what he wants to “say” by the look on his face and his body language. After being attacked by a bear in the first 20 minutes of the film, Leo’s character Glass is wounded (physically and emotionally) for the remainder of the film and is pretty much on his own. Much like Robert Redford in All is Lost; Leo scowls, grunts, and moans his way through most of the film. With that intensity that he has, he’s able to communicate a lot with the look and pain in his eyes. When DiCaprio jumps into frigid waters, forages for food, or crawls his way through dirt and snow . . . you can nearly feel the chill, hunger, and distress that he’s going through as he experiences them on screen.
The said bear attack in the film is one of the most harrowing scenes in any film from 2015. Again, as with many of the other scenes throughout the film, it’s very well choreographed and pretty much sold by the expressions that appear on Leo’s face. For the most part, the bear is a product of visual effects, but there are some practical effects mixed in as well to give a very realistic feel. Not that the bear was a product of bad-CGI, but there is just no way that any studio (and probably even Leo himself) would allow Leo to interact with a grizzly bear. Needless to say, the intensity, realism, and pain in the scene are sold through Leo’s eyes.
Though Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Will Poulter all lend supporting roles in the film; this is Iñárritu and Leo’s film to be sure. It’s a simple story told on a grand and extravagant scale as only these two auteurs could create. And as amazing as the film is, I can’t recommend it for everyone. For starters, the film clocks in at 2 hours and 36 minutes (just about ten minutes shy of The Hateful Eight that’s playing here) so it’s a long film to start. And like I mentioned earlier, much of Leo’s scenes don’t involve a lot of dialogue; many are also meditative as well. If you crave non-stop action, a lot of talking and explanation in your movies, or movies that have a run time of fewer than two hours then The Revenant is not going to be for you. However, if you can withstand all that, then The Revenant is definitely worth seeing and is one of the best films of 2015.
The Revenant expands today and is now playing in theaters locally.
4 of 5 stars // rated R // 2h 36m