The Revenant Is An Epic Undertaking That Pays Off Epic-ly
By Jeff Feuerhaken
There’s a small handful of filmmakers out there whose films can be identified without having to see their names in the credits. For example, I could tell by the brutal violence, brilliantly witty dialogue, and “retro-film” aesthetics that I’m watching a Quentin Tarantino movie. And if there’s campy, goth, beautiful production design with a misfit, pale skinned protagonist, then clearly it’s a Tim Burton movie. A director who has quickly added his name to that list is Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Inarritu landed on everyone’s radar with last year’s Birdman, which took home 4 Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. While the defining characteristics of his films are his immaculately choreographed long takes, detailed exploration of character psyche, and placing the camera right up in an actor’s grill, the thing I personally identity most as an Innaritu film is that after I’ve seen it, I CANNOT STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.
Which brings us to his latest epic, The Revenant, starring Leo DiCaprio. Set in the frontier of the 1820’s, The Revenant centers on fur trader Hugh Glass, who, after being left for dead by his own men, has to overcome the most brutal of obstacles, physical and mental, to exact his revenge on those who wronged him. Much like last year’s Birdman, The Revenant is almost entirely focused on its single protagonist, played masterfully by DiCaprio. The supporting cast should not be overlooked. Tom Hardy delivers another in a long line of exceptional performances, and rising stars Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter also stand out among this solid cast. However, DiCaprio went utterly all in on this role, and the result is nothing short of mesmerizing. DiCaprio goes to extreme lengths to telegraph the suffering endured by Glass, and after watching the film, it’s no surprise that Leo is quoted as to have said that making this film was more a chapter in his life than just a role in a movie. A true method actor, DiCaprio immersed himself into this character so much to the point that he eats an actual raw bison liver (DiCaprio is a vegetarian) and hurls himself into an ice-cold river. I couldn’t help but empathize with Glass, and by going through his journey with him, I found myself internally examining the limits of human endurance. DiCaprio says he himself was pushed to his limit during the filming of this movie about 30 to 40 times. But the result is a masterpiece performance which, I’m calling it here folks, is going to finally result in that elusive gold statue for Mr. DiCaprio.
I would be remiss to neglect to mention a few other bombshells about the decidedly unconventional way this movie was made. The first is that this movie was shot “in order”. In case you hadn’t known, movies are almost always shot out of order, meaning certain scenes toward the beginning of the film may have been some of the last to shoot. For instance, if there are several scenes during the course a film that take a place at a certain location, such as a bar or a police station, the production will shoot all of those scenes in the same day to minimize costs. This was not the case with The Revenant, which was shot start-to-finish in order. Also of note is the amount of lights used in production, which total in at a whopping one. The name of that light? The sun. Yes, there was absolutely zero artificial lighting used in this movie, which must have been quite a challenge for DP Emmanuel Lubezki, who should be a virtual lock for his second consecutive Oscar. Due to the amount of setup time needed and the lack of daylight hours in winter, production only had about an hour and a half shooting time each day to get the required shots. As a result, the entirety of the shoot took a staggering nine months to complete. The process was understandably taxing for cast and crew. In face, the tensions had risen so high during filming at one point that there was a rumored altercation between Innaritu and Hardy that turned physical.
Yet for all of the difficulties endured in the making of this movie, the end result is well worth it. The Revenant is a masterstroke of cinema excellence. It is at the same time intimate and epic, a contrast between the emotionally dense characters and the sprawling, beautifully savage environments they inhabit. There are moments that will leave you absolutely breathless, and there are moments that will leave you wondering “how the hell did they do that?!” I highly recommend going to see it right away. And yes, I STILL CANNOT STOP THINKING ABOUT IT! I suspect you might have that same reaction.