I can’t talk about The Revenant without talking about how it was made. I might admire the filmmaking more than I like the finished product. And I really like the finished product. The harsh and challenging conditions under which the movie was produced have been well discussed in the film community. In director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s own words, “every molecule of this film was absolutely difficult. We were basically eleven months at the mercy of the low temperatures and different conditions that changed seven times a day.”
Iñárritu and cinematographer and co-author, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubeski, chose to shoot only using natural light and firelight, leaving few, precious hours of the day to film in. Supposedly, hours of unusable light would be spent rehearsing a shot, only to have everything change shortly before rolling. The crew worked their asses off. Stuntmen did repeated takes of being dragged naked by a horse. Leonardo DiCaprio not only submerged himself in ice cold mountain water, the dude actually ate a raw bison liver. The composer of the film, Ryuichi Sakamoto (of Yellow Magic Orchestra!) wrote parts of the score while in remission from throat cancer. The sound design for the bear sequence took one month to create. Tom Hardy dropped out of the upcoming DC cashcow Suicide Squad in order to finish the film. I’m not going to recount every single fact of difficulty, because you may be thinking right now, “Why does that matter?“
“I think this a film that I want the people to feel the cold to smell the fear to remind how a tree sounds when there’s wind, and become the hero and be broken, and isolated and be dead, and reborn again.” – Iñárritu, Director
“The idea of using natural light came because we wanted the audience to feel, I hope, that this stuff is really happening.”- Chivo, Cinematographer
Well, it matters because all of it was done in the name of creating a visceral experience. Every painstaking measure taken to add a feeling of realism and authenticity, be it eating raw flesh on camera, or facing your mortality while scoring a film about survival, all of the these beautiful, coincidental nuances enhance what and how we’re watching. It’s the most immersive we can get with just our eyes and ears. The quest for authenticity and a movie that you can feel stretches to every aspect of the film, including the story which is inspired by history.
Hugh Glass really was a historical frontiersman who worked the fur routes of the Missouri River side of South Dakota, but I doubt he was as cool as Leonardo Di Caprio, who plays him in the movie. Glass was rumored to have been kidnapped by Pawnee, but was accepted in their tribe and even married a Pawnee woman. In Iñárritu’s story, Glass is the father of a half-Pawnee boy, Hawk, and their bond is one of the biggest motivations of the plot.
Glass and Hawk work as guides for the Rocky Mountain fur company, and after surviving a brutal raid from a Pawnee search party, Glass is mauled by a bear while trying to clear a trail back safety. Somehow, Glass survives, but his injuries leave him immobilized. His throat’s been slashed, he has no voice. In the film, the rest of the fur trapper company presses onward while Hawk, and two other men stay behind to care for Glass until he can move, or until he dies. One of these guys is a treacherous sleaze named John Fitzgerald.
Portrayed with an affected Southern mumble by Tom Hardy, Fitzgerald has survived being scalped, and it has left him scarred and full of hate. He has the moral handicap of a sociopath. So of course he’s the one to stay behind with Glass so that he can bury him proper when the time comes. Fitzgerald just wants to be on his way, so he tries to smother Glass to death, only to be interrupted by Hawk. Glass watches helplessly as Fitzgerald murders his son and hides the body. Fitzgerald, fearing he’ll be found out for murder, compels the other trapper to leave. Glass is buried alive, but somehow, he survives.
And that’s just the first third of the movie.
The remainder of the movie reimagines the two hundred mile trek Glass actually took back to civilization to avenge his son. On the way, he survives encounters with the same Indian search party that attacked him in the film’s opening, they themselves on a quest to avenge a lost child. This is where the script really diverges from history, but is still compelling due to how well each scene is reflective of the overlying themes.
There’s a scene where Glass is investigating a strange rumble, and he climbs over a hill to see a herd of buffalo being attacked by a pack of wolves, and they’re all CG. But they’re not a major spectacle. We experience them as Glass does, from afar. Yet their presence adds to reality of the world, and goes further to illustrates Iñárritu’s grand narrative, which is the bond between parents and children, the need to survive and protect, the all-encompassing scope of nature.
You and I, we aren’t so different, wolves, bears and buffalos.
What we see and how we see it determine our ability to be immersed in the story, therefore, the camera is the defining factor. I think it’s disrespectful to talk about this movie’s authorship without recognizing how dope the cinematography is. Both Chivo and Iñárritu won Oscars for their roles on Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, but the most striking thing about that film was Chivo’s continuous pan, which gave the film the feeling that it was all done in one take. Chivo uses that technique in The Revenant as well, notably in two of the most violent scenes: the opening raid and the bear attack.
Chivo decided to shoot the film chronologically, and it took four weeks to film the opening attack scene between two hundred Pawnee and frontiersmen. In this sequence, the camera continuously moves like a character through the battlefield, witnessing every flesh piercing arrow, hearing the roars of bullets, feeling disoriented at the pace of the sudden violence. The kinetic energy of all the people running around and the sense of panic is maintained by the camera’s movements, while it serpentines, almost as if it’s trying to get us to safety. It’s the most intense battle sequence since the storming of Normandy Beach in Saving Private Ryan.
Coincidentally, Spielberg and Janusz Kaminsky also shot that scene chronologically using long takes.
The long takes are used again, and like in the battle scene, it plays with our concept of time: the bear attack lasts a pretty long time. Comically so. At one point the grizzly meanders away, we can hear it a few feet off, but like Hugh Glass, we don’t have the ability to look up. Glass slowly reaches for his rifle and takes aim, but, oh no! The bear comes back and now it’s pissed because it got shot. It chews Glass’s wrist like jerky. It’s uncomfortable because of how helpless you feel watching it.
DiCaprio asked Iñárritu how he envisioned the bear fight, and Iñárritu replied something to the effect of, “It’s a bear. It’s gonna kick the shit out of you.” And that’s what happens. Leo is batted around like a rag doll, but the scope of the violence isn’t what’s amazing, but again, how the camera immerses us in the attack. We don’t witness it from afar like a documentary crew, but we’re right next to Glass’s face.
Throughout the film Chivo gets close to Leo to capture the intensity in his icy eyes, or to catch a subtle twitch, a real reaction to the conditions he’s in. His breath fogs the lens. His blood spatters on to the filter.
Normally, filmmakers try to be invisible, but Chivo’s approach is to treat the camera like a character, the audience’s character, so it’s really active. We get up close and we move with the other characters so it feels right when some viscera spray across our eyes.
Just as the camera establishes a participatory feeling, the sounds in the film equally bring you closer to feeling something real. The sound design during the bear attack is particularly amazing. You hear the grunts of the cubs before you see them, and you hear mamabear before she’s revealed. You can hear the speed of Glass’s pulse and breath transition as the attack ensues. After the initial attack, Glass’s low, strained breathing gets lost under the guttural grunts coming from the grizzly.
Later, Glass has to cut open a dead horse to survive a snowstorm. He grunts as he rips open its ribs, but we hear the horse grunt, too. Obviously a dead horse wouldn’t really moan, but that sound design conveys that objection we’d have towards committing that act amazingly well.
But even when there are no battles or bear attacks, the story is made fuller by the sound of nature, the rushing water, the blowing winds, and the crunch of snow under boots.
The Revenant seems like the obvious choice to me for “Best Everything,” because no other film achieved this level of visceral storytelling. The performances from DiCaprio and Hardy are intense and compelling, each telling so much about their characters through their body language, exemplifying visual over verbal.
All the hardships from the shoot really did crossover to the screen. It’s in the lingering, wide landscapes and quiet vistas that inter-stitch this modern Western together. Any movies that tried to do the same same, but didn’t go the distance pale in comparison. Do you think shooting in front of a green screen can get you the same thing?
From the outside, Ron Howard’s Heart of The Sea has a lot in common with The Revenant. Both are inspired by real history, both deal with obsessive characters, and both deal with the sublime terror of nature. But one film is being called The Apocalypse Now of the 21st Century, and the other is…well, I’m waiting for the other one on Redbox.