A year after Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman took home a suite of maybe-deserved Academy Awards mostly on the basis of its CGI-stitched “single shot” presentation, he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki present a new movie, which many of the cast and crew are calling “the most difficult work [they’ve] ever done”: The Revenant. Shot with minimal computer assistance and natural lighting in the wilderness of British Columbia and Alberta, this is truly some of the most spectacular filmmaking of the year, assuming you know how something about films are made.
A prime example comes late in the movie, but I can describe it without spoiling the story. In a single take, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts looking at something on the ground. He raises his head, facing the camera, partly thinking, and partly looking for where his quarry may have escaped. In the background, over his shoulder, we see a far ridge across a valley from the one Glass stands on. An avalanche begins, coursing down the distant cliff face and billowing out into a cloud of snow that rushes towards Glass — and us — in the foreground.
When you know what went into this shot, it’s simply gobsmacking not only to have pulled this one off, but that it’s just one of many in the film, and not even the most complicated of them. They had worked out precisely how far up Lubezki’s camera would move, and what it would capture in the distance. Further up, out of frame, they had positioned a helicopter over the far ridge. They knew the exact altitude of the helicopter, and could predict how long it would take for an object to drop onto the snowfield. Then they worked backwards from when they wanted the avalanche to begin in the shot, and at just the right time they had an assistant director radio to the helicopter to drop a small explosive charge that would set it off. It’s the sort of thing they’d only be able to try once, and they pulled it off perfectly.
Except, what are most audiences going to think? Even if they notice the length of the shot — which most interested audience members know to look for by now — will they really stop to notice whether the avalanche was real or CGI? Will they care? What difference does all this extra effort make to the story?
Ah, yes: the story. Glass was a frontiersman who was actually mauled by a bear in 1823 while working for a fur-trapping expedition along the Missouri River through what is now South Dakota. Two men, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) were left to stay with him until he died, then to bury him and catch up with the group, but they soon took his equipment and left, claiming to have been attacked by Arikara natives. Glass regained consciousness and made his way 200 miles downstream to Fort Kiowa over the next six weeks, where he recovered before setting out to get his stuff back.
In The Revenant, Iñárritu introduces a third watcher: Glass’ fictional half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), whom Fitzgerald kills before abandoning Glass. This makes the story less of a survival and recovery narrative and more of a revenge thriller. So it’s no surprise to learn that Park Chan-wook was the first director attached to the film; to a great extent it still feels of a piece with his Vengeance Trilogy.
Park would have no qualms about just getting scenes done with CGI and getting on with it. He’d also be fine just making a revenge flick, without feeling a need to make it somehow “deeper”. Iñárritu, however, seems to need both technical achievement and meaningful commentary.
As I’ve said, he and Lubezki really outdo themselves on the technical side, but the attempt at a message falls very short. It begins, again, with the addition of Hawk: during his ordeal, Glass has periodic fever dreams or visions of his dead wife (Grace Dove) and the destruction of her village at the hands of American soldiers. These sequences are shot much more impressionistically, and feature his wife’s fragmented voiceovers. It feels like an attempt to mimic Terrence Malick’s style, but without any real understanding of what makes Malick work.
For this theme, Iñárritu even lands somewhere near the territory Malick covers in The New World, but without nearly his depth. Glass, in his reveries, faces the brutality and exploitation of the American frontier. But at the same time the story itself is just as racist as any of its frontiersmen. As if the wilderness isn’t dangerous enough, Glass also has to contend with an Arikara raiding party in search of the chief’s kidnapped daughter. And beyond that trite motivation, they’re made out to be as dumb and gullible as they are fearsome in battle.
So, at heart, what we have is a fine vengeance thriller doing a decent imitation of Park Chan-wook. It’s even being marketed like a grindhouse picture, or even a William Castle-era B-movie. The rumor mill has been seeded with soundbites about how traumatically scary it is, using plenty of hyper-macho language. At the screening I attended, they even strapped heart monitors on twenty of us as part of some marketing gimmick. I regret to say that I was probably unhelpful; my pulse likely kicked up more when someone stood up in front of me to go to the bathroom than over anything on the screen itself.
But it’s also a movie that’s not content with being what it is, so it tries to dress itself up with badly-written philosophical musings and truly spectacular cinematography. The technical achievements are impressive, but most audiences aren’t likely to realize that anyway. And the attempt to be taken “seriously” winds up sounding a lot more like half-baked dorm-room musings about how unfair America is than any truly incisive criticism of our founding frontier mythology.
Worth It: yes
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.